Writer/director Andrew Traucki’s career has always existed somewhat in the wrong time and place. He should have come of age as a filmmaker in the Roger Corman era or grindhouse eras of the 60s.
There’s little subtext or deeper meaning in his movies – he takes his characters, puts them somewhere out of the way and unspoiled, and makes us watch as a wild, hungry animal hunts them down.
Want social comment or philosophical discourse? Look elsewhere. The ace ”Black Water” (so well made it was genuinely upsetting) asks us what it’d be like to be stalked and eaten by a crocodile, followed up ”The Reef”, which asked the same question about a giant shark. The hundreds of filmmakers and artists who owe Corman their careers would be proud.
This time Tracuki turns his attention to a make-believe monster. It’s done in the no-sign-of-slowing-down found footage style, but as recent titles like Affliction have proven, we shouldn’t write found footage off just yet no matter how many times we’ve seen it.
Environmentalist Larry is on his way to Indonesia with his cameraman brother Ben, where they’re going to be joined by local officials to find and tag the Javan Leopard so it can be understood and protected.
Once there, they’re suddenly assigned a government tracker with little explanation (a job Larry understood was going to do himself), the first sign of trouble. As they move further from civilisation, they talk to more people about (and see more apparent signs of) some kind of demonic monster that lives far into the dense jungle and protects its territory violently.
Larry and Ben laugh it off, but when even their guide and tracker start to talk about turning back, Larry gets increasingly frustrated. Something’s out in the jungle – they’re hearing it and their remote camera is capturing fleeting images – and Larry’s sure it’s the leopard they’re after.
But blood and remains point to some much bigger predator in the area and even Ben starts to harbour doubts. When they find human remains, the dynamic ion the group well and truly breaks down. The rest of the team virtually plead with Larry to go back so they can report the apparent grisly murder to authorities, but with the sounds of a huge beast stalking them at night, it might be too late for any of them to get away.
Like he has in other films, Traucki proves himself a master of tension – a much more important element than simple scares in horror. Sometimes he achieves it with no more than an extended night-vision field of view into a dark jungle, some angry-sounding beast breaking branches and snarling not far off. Even as you curl up in a knot waiting for something horrible to burst out of the trees at you the writer/director rarely obliges, twisting the screw a little further and often defusing the tension using some other, less expected way instead.
All four performers give everything they have even if the script and acting are a little creaky in some spots, and the character of Larry comes off looking like kind of a dick at times. With his determination to fulfill his mission he appears every bit the insensitive outsider, not caring in the least about local custom or superstition no matter how silly it might be to Westerners.
But the biggest issue some will have is that ”The Jungle” just doesn’t give you enough of a look at the monster. It’s an interesting creative choice Traucki no doubt made to try and make it even scarier – something half-glimpsed in the dark is always more effective fodder in horror, after all.
But if it’s something fantastical we’ve never seen before, it’s kind of a cheat not to give us at least something. Even after the frenetic handheld activity of ”Cloverfield”, the script allowed for one steady, dead-straight view of the creature.
We tend to vastly overstate the amount of time monsters appear on screen in monster movies anyway. The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park only took up about 10 minutes of running time, Jaws barely three minutes. So ”The Jungle” follows in good company, but we can barely count the images of the titular beast in seconds, and the found footage concept doesn’t give us anything close to a clear view.
It will make some viewers disappointed, but it takes nothing away from the skill of Traucki and his cast to make another nail-sawing beast-hunts-man mash.