Here Alone

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“Forest of the Dead”

A viral plague has decimated mankind, turning its victims in mindless, flesh-craving ghouls. One of the few to have survived is Ann (Walters), who has taken up residence in the woods, where she has camped out. Ann uses the survival skills she received from her now-absent husband, Jason (West), only occasionally having to emerge and risk the threat of the infected, in order to gather supplies. Her secluded, yet relatively safe existence is disturbed, when she finds an injured man, Chris (Thompson) and his teenage daughter, Liv (Piersanti) on a road. They are supposed to be on their way north, to where the epidemic is reported to be in check. Yet Chris, in particular, seems curiously unwilling to be on his way.

If there’s nothing particularly new or inventive about this version of the zombie apocalypse, it’s not without its small-scale merits. Ann is far from some kind of survivalist Mary Sue: she’s barely getting by, perhaps having paid less attention to her wilderness lessons than she should have. Probably wisely, for a small budget film, the infected – the term “zombies” is never used – are kept largely out of sight, heard more than they are seen. While their shrieks are unnerving enough, the tension comes more from internal forces: the opaque nature of Chris’s motives, for example, or Ann’s dwindling supply of bullets. The former are particularly troubling: the dynamic between Chris and Liv just seems “off” in a variety of ways, and I was not surprised when this played a part in the film’s climax. However, things do not unfold in the way I expected, so credit for that.

The film does cheat a bit with regard to previous events. At the beginning of the film, Ann is already alone, and information about what happened to Jason and their child, is only doled out in teaspoon-sized flashbacks over the course of subsequent events. It matters, because these flashbacks reveal quite a lot about her character, and the way she interacts with other people: information we otherwise don’t have. By not getting it until later, we end up retro-fitting it into what we’ve already seen, and I’m not certain the additional complexity of structure imposed, serves any real purpose.

In the earlier stages, it reminded me of The Wall, with its tale of a woman thrown back entirely onto her own resources. While that solo adventure would have been difficult to sustain, it is the most interesting and original part of proceedings. I was rather disappointed when Chris + Liv showed up, because the entire dynamic changes at that point, and the film becomes something with which I’m somewhat too familiar. While there are twists down the stretch, this rejects the chance to truly separate itself from the large pack of zombie apocalypse movies in terms of plot. Fortunately, a solid performance from Walters helps the film sustain viewer interest through the weaker second half.

Dir: Rod Blackhurst
Star: Lucy Walters, Adam David Thompson, Gina Piersanti, Shane West

Girl in Woods

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“Why we don’t camp, #273.”

It’s always interesting when reviews of a film are deeply polarized, and that’s the case here. The first page of Google results run the gamut from “I simply despised the film as a whole” to “The images are frightening within, and the only thing better than the scares are the performances.” While I lean toward the latter, I can see how this could have failed to make a connection with some viewers, and if that happens, then there isn’t much else to prevent the former opinion. It’s the kind of film where there isn’t likey to be a middle ground in reactions.

Following an awful childhood trauma, Grace (Reeves) has grown up into a troubled soul, but has finally found some peace, through her boyfriend (not without his own issues) and pharmaceutical help. However, that’s all shattered on a weekend trip to a cabin in the forest; on the way there, an accident (or was it?) occurs, leaving Grace stranded, alone, in the woods and very poorly equipped to survive. For what follows is a gradual and relentless shattering of her sanity, as the stress builds up and the drugs run out, and she tries to get out of her predicament. Grace’s personality splits into three distinct versions of herself – then there’s the darkly aboriginal creature who appears to be stalking her.

Meanwhile, we get flashbacks to Grace’s life with her mother (Carpenter) and father (Perkins), shedding some light on the cause of her mental fragility. It’s not much of a stretch to see Grace’s lost physical state as a metaphor for her psychological one: the title (and yes, that is it – I didn’t miss out a “the”) suggests the same. Since her character is on screen in virtually every scene, it’s a movie which really stands or falls on whether you buy in to Reeves’s performance – or, more accurately, performanceS, since many of these have her interacting only with her other selves. After some shaky moments early on, I found the approach kinda crept up on me, and some of the three-way scenes are near-impeccable, both technically and dramatically.

When your story largely involves watching someone lose their mind, keeping it interesting for the viewer is not an easy task to pull off. Benson succeeds, even if you’ll be reluctant to commit too far, because it’s clear that what Grace remembers, and what actually happened, may be radically different things. There’s a sudden effort at the end to tie everything together into urban legend, which I’m not sure is particularly helpful. It seems to come out of nowhere and feels like pandering toward a sequel. Trim those few minutes off, because you’ll know the “true” ending when you see it, and it would be a tighter overall product. Yet, there’s still enough of merit here to make it worthwhile, if admittedly this could be seen as merely confirming our strong preference against woodland wandering.

Dir: Jeremy Benson
Star: Juliet Reeves, Charisma Carpenter, Lee Perkins, Jeremy London

47 Meters Down

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“Nobody expects the sharkish inquisition!”

Stealing from both Open Water and The Shallows, this takes two sisters on a scuba-diving trip in Mexico. There’s Lisa (Moore) and Kate (Holt): the latter is all gung-ho about the chance to dive with sharks, while the former is considerably less enthusiastic, about life in general, being on the wrong side of a break-up. And, whaddya know, her concerns prove to be entirely valid, as the chain of the observation cage snaps, sending them plunging 150 feet down into the water. Air is limited, the sharks are circling, and they’ve fallen out of radio range with the boat above. How are they going to survive?

I’ve read thoroughly scathing reviews of this from scuba divers, criticizing a number of technical aspects – for instance, their air would be woefully insufficient. As someone who has never even snorkeled, I can only acknowledge these and move on, since they didn’t impact my opinion much. Though I have to say, I did notice how novice diver Lisa becomes remarkably proficient over the course of the film, even swapping out her tank on the fly, something I imagine isn’t a novice task. It is necessary to accept that the entire thing is inevitably going to be highly contrived: the sharks appear only when required, and don’t attack when that’s needed, too. These are creatures, strictly necessary to the plot, and it’s a mechanism which is largely par for the genre course. Who needs motivation? They’re freakin’ sharks!!!

Still, for what it is, this does the job, the director pushing the appropriate buttons with a degree of competence. After a somewhat shaky opening reel, where you wonder how much of the film is going to be emotion-driven, it settles down to what matters. This means a straightforward Problem → Solution → Execution cycle, with the sisters having to come up with strategies for the issues as they arise. Having two leads does help avoid the awkward structure we saw in The Shallows, with the heroine speaking to a conveniently wounded seagull, largely in order to avoid 80 minutes without dialogue. Fortunately for this film, Lisa and Kate are conveniently wearing masks with radios, so they can emote to each other, instead of being limited to enthusiastic hand-signals.

The ending is certainly reminiscent of another movie you’ll find on this site. I’ll avoid explicit spoilers, but it got our seal of approval, and if you’ve seen the film in question, you’ll certainly look askance at the wholesale hijacking carried out here. It’s this general lack of many ideas entirely its own, which prevents this from being as successful as it might be. The performances and direction are good enough for the job, and it laudably avoids any romantic interest worth mentioning at all. This film instead has a single goal, much like sharks are machines with one purpose: killing… Killing and eating. Their two purposes are killing and eating. And making little sharks. Their three purposes are killing, eating, and making little sharks. And an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope. Er, among their purposes are such elements as…

I’ll come in again.

Dir: Johannes Roberts
Star: Mandy Moore, Claire Holt
a.k.a. In the Deep

Survivor (2014)

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“The post-apocalyptic horse whisperer.”

Arrowstorm Entertainment appear to have quietly become a minor creator of action heroine flicks. We’ve previously written about several entries in their Mythica series, and also Cyborg X, but seem to have missed this one. As in Mythica, the “name” star here is Hercules himself, Sorbo, who plays Captain Hunter. He’s in charge of one of seven interstellar ships, dispatched from Earth after the conditions for life here became increasingly precarious. Having spent four decades in space, they pick up a message, but when attempting to reach its source, go through a wormhole and their shuttle craft disintegrates. Hunter and his crew are scattered across the surface; with the captain having a broken leg, it’s up to his most highly-trained recruit, Kate Mitra (Chuchran) to rescue him.

Which would be fine, if that’s what it was. The first half of the film, in particular the section which has Mitra battling her way across the unforgiving landscape, and against the creatures (both humanoid and… not so much) who inhabit the planet, is actually pretty good. Chuchran looks thoroughly convincing, possessing actual muscle tone; the production makes good use of the Utah landscapes; and the lack of dialogue here may well work to the movie’s benefit. It’s undeniably a distraction how evolution on this alien solar system managed to produce something looking exactly like a horse. This is explained… but I have to say, the reason is something I had strongly suspected before it was delivered, and had been hoping I was wide of the mark.

Sadly, I wasn’t, and the film’s second half is considerably weaker. This stops focusing on its main strength – the heroine – and doesn’t live up to the poster tag-lines which use both the worlds “only survivor” and “alone”. She turns out to be neither, and the plot disintegrates into some kind of squabble between the tribes of local inhabitants, along with a couple of (somewhat convincing) monsters. Combine this with the explanation mentioned above, and my interest evaporated – in the same way the oceans back on Earth apparently had, according to Kate’s opening voice-over. Rather than going in an original direction, as had been the case earlier on, the influences become painfully obvious, and this film does not benefit in any such comparison.

From the technical point of view, this isn’t too bad, especially considering the budget was so low, a significant fraction came through Kickstarter. It mixes CGI and practical effects to generally decent effect; the odd shot looks ropey, and some of the “mutants” are a little Halloween-esque, but I’m gradually learning that comes with the Arrowstorm territory. There is just a strong sense of unfulfilled potential; in Chuchran, they had someone who could have been capable of carrying the entire film on her own. To see her character largely shuffled off to the side during the latter stages was a bit of a disappointment, and I hope future projects will offer her the opportunity she appears to deserve, based on a solid showing here.

Dir: John Lyde
Star: Danielle Chuchran, Kevin Sorbo, Rocky Myers, Ruby Jones

Miracles Still Happen

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“Truth is certainly more entertaining than fiction.”

We documented elsewhere the incredible, true survival story of Juliane Koepcke, who survived a two-mile fall from the sky, then 10 days alone in the Amazon rain-forest. Naturally, it wasn’t long before a “true-life adventure” version of the story made its way to the screen, starring English actress Susan Penhaligon as Juliane. Outside of Penhaligon, and the actor and actress who play Koepcke’s father and mother (Muller and Galvani), the hook here is that everyone else plays themselves, such as the people involved in the search and rescue mission, for example.

Unfortunately, it isn’t much of a hook, because they didn’t really do much. Like finding the freakin’ plane, it being left up to Koepcke more or less to rescue herself, walking out of the jungle to be found by some very surprised loggers, ten days after the crash. Thus, you get a lot of footage of people flying planes, taking off, landing, radioing in for instructions… None of which adds significantly to the atmosphere, or adds any factual notes of importance. The film is also hamstrung by the very fact this is a saga of solo adventure, which means that once Juliana hits the ground like a giant lawn-dart, it’s her against the jungle. And the jungle isn’t exactly a witty, sparkling conversationalist.

Working around this, Scotese makes heavy use of flashbacks and voiceover. It does stick relatively closely to the facts of the narrative. There is some scathing criticism of this film in Werner Herzog’s documentary about her ordeal, Wings of Hope; Herzog describes it as “extraordinarily bad”, and Koepcke pans Penhaligon for stumbling through the jungle “with the look of a hunted doe” (as shown above!). However, she did apparently consult with the creators – likely further than certain Italian moviemakers would have gone, especially in the seventies. So most of the key moments do agree with what Juliane has said over the years. For instance, she did remember a key survival lesson about finding a stream and following it down, and she did stumble across some crash victims, briefly wondering if they included her mother, with whom she had flown.

It’s generally better off when it simply concentrates on the perilous jungle, especially the moments when you get some idea of scale. The Amazon is big, folks. Credit also due to Penhaligon, who gets steadily more disheveled over the course of what can’t have been an easy film to shoot. She certainly gets closer to a very large anaconda than I would have been prepared to go! But watching her stagger, increasingly bedraggled, around the rainforest is something that isn’t enough to sustain interest. We can only wonder what the results might have been like had Herzog, who narrowly escaped being on the plane which crashed (doing location scouting for Aguirre, Wrath of God), directed this instead.

Oddly, this is credited to ‘Brut Productions’, which was the film production division of cosmetics company Fabergé. I say oddly, because those of a certain age and location will remember 70’s commercials in which heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper touted “the great smell of Brut” aftershave. Seeing its logo pop up in the opening credits here was certainly unexpected. I may well remember that much more than the rest of the film

Dir: Giuseppe Maria Scotese
Star: Susan Penhaligon, Paul Muller, Graziella Galvani

The incredible, true survival story of Juliane Koepcke

Surviving when the plane in which you’re flying, disintegrates around you at a height of 10,000 feet is remarkable enough. When you land in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, one of the most hostile environments on Earth, and have to make it alone for more than a week, with virtually no resources, as you try to find your way to safety, that’s astonishing.

If you’re a 17-year-old girl? It’s off the charts amazing.

Admittedly, Juliane Koepcke was not your average teenager. Indeed, she could hardly have been better prepared for her ordeal. Her family moved to a research station in the Peruvian rainforest when she was 14, so her father, zoologist Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke, could continue his work. Juliane was initially home-schooled, and the curriculum covered much more than the traditional three R’s. She said, “I’d lived in the jungle long enough as a child to be acquainted with the bugs and other creatures that scurry, rustle, whistle, and snarl. There was almost nothing my parents hadn’t taught me about the jungle.” However, she was required to complete her education in the capital Lima. On Christmas Eve, 1971, she and her mother prepared to fly back from there to Pucallpa, the nearest airport to their home.

They would never arrive. The pilot made an ill-advised decision to fly through a thunderstorm, in a poorly maintained plane [the airline, LANSA, had a bad reputation for mechanical reliability, and would cease operations a few weeks later]. A lightning bolt hit the craft, igniting a fuel tank in the wing, and triggering catastrophic structural failure. Juliane fell two miles, still strapped to her seat; the protection it offered, together with the somewhat cushioned landing offered by the rainforest canopy, is likely why she became the sole survivor. She was not uninjured: she had a broken collarbone, a serious gash on her leg, a partial fracture of her shin and a torn knee ligament. Given the circumstances, though, it could have been much worse.

That was brought home later, after she came across some other victims: “When I turned a corner in the creek, I found a bench with three passengers rammed head first into the earth. I was paralysed by panic. It was the first time I had seen a dead body. I thought my mother could be one of them but when I touched the corpse with a stick, I saw that the woman’s toenails were painted – my mother never polished her nails.” With her sole piece of regular food a bag of candy, she had to try and make her way out. The key to her survival was finding a tiny rivulet, and following it downstream. She knew that this trickle would flow into a larger creek, and this in turn would join a river: eventually, she’d find people. Her quest was helped by hearing the call of a hoatzin, a bird Juliane recognized as nesting near open water.

Her wilderness knowledge helped when she reached the river too. The undergrowth along the bank was too dense to allow for progress, so Juliane opted to float down the middle. There, she knew potentially lethal stingrays won’t go, preferring the shallows, and also that piranhas are not a threat in quickly-moving water. But a cut on her arm had become infected with maggots, forcing her to extreme measures, after Juliane found a boat with a motor and a barrel of diesel fuel. “I remembered our dog had the same infection and my father had put kerosene in it, so I sucked the gasoline out and put it into the wound. The pain was intense as the maggots tried to get further into the wound. I pulled out about 30 maggots.”

She opted to spend the night there – her tenth in the jungle since the crash – and that proved to be her salvation. For she had stumbled across a seasonal camp belonging to some loggers, who were astonished to show up the next day and discover a blonde woman in their camp. Juliane recalls, “They believe in all sorts of ghosts there, and at first they thought that I was one of these water spirits called Yemanjá. They are blondes, supposedly.” They had heard about the crash on the radio, and took her downstream in their boat, to a local hospital that could tend her injuries, which now also included second-degree sunburn.

The authorities hadn’t been able to locate the crash site, but with Juliane’s help, they found it, and her mother’s body was eventually recovered on January 12, more than three weeks later. The creepiest thing? “My mother wasn’t dead when she fell from the plane. My father thought she’d survived for nearly two weeks – perhaps up to January 6, because when he went to identify her body it wasn’t as decomposed as you’d expect in that environment – it’s very warm and humid and there are lots of animals that would eat dead bodies. He thought she’d broken her backbone or her pelvis and couldn’t move.”

Juliane helped advise the makers of a movie based on her experiences (Miracles Still Happen, see below, or review here) and returned to the area in the early eighties, to study the area’s native bats. But it was close to two decades before she began to achieve closure. She returned to the crash site with German film-maker Werner Herzog, as part of his documentary Wings of Hope about her ordeal. Herzog was particularly well-suited to make the film, because when he was location scouting for his movie Aguirre, Wrath of God, he had initially been booked on the flight which crashed – only being saved by a last minute change in plans. Following that, Koepcke was able to write her own story, published as When I Fell from the Sky in 2011.

Below, you’ll find first Werner’s Herzog’s documentary Wings of Hope, and then the Italian feature film Miracles Still Happen, starring Susan Penhaligon, offering both factual and fictionalized versions of her remarkable story of survival. It’s truly one of the most incredible ever experienced and a testament to how knowledge can make all the difference between life and death.

All Girls Weekend

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“Why we don’t camp, #173.”

There’s something admirable about a film entirely cast with and directed by women, especially in such a generally male-dominated genre as horror. Unfortunately, all this effort really goes to prove, is that the fairer sex are every bit as capable of turning out uninteresting crap as any man. An ill-conceived cross between The Descent and The Blair Witch Project, this has four old school friends reuniting, along with the workmate of one of them, who tags along because… Well, as with so much in the movie, for no particularly good reason.  There’s friction between the friends, from the moment Nancy (Bernadette) shows up four hours late, forcing their departure to be pushed back.

But it’s when an innocent little pre-dinner hike is suggested that things truly go off the rails. For the workmate falls, and is impaled on… well, let’s be honest, and call it a twig. The party is unable to get out of the woods and find help, finding themselves perpetually going in circles. It’s almost as if the forest itself is trying to keep them from leaving. Turns out that’s exactly the case – not much of a spoiler this – for there was a mill there, which polluted the entire area, and unleashed a curse. Now, in order to regenerate, the earth spirit is now demanding blood sacrifices. So, before you can say, “Hang on – this doesn’t make much sense,” the party are being threatened in different, mostly fairly ludicrous ways. It’s almost like a live-action version of The Gashleycrumb Tinies: “N is for Nancy, pursued by a bear,” albeit where it’s abundantly apparent that Nancy and the bear were never simultaneously in the same zip-code.

Whoever designed the poster likely deserves some kind of award, for making the film look a hundred times more exciting than it is ever capable of delivering. The final 10 minutes can’t make up for the poor pacing and horribly talky nature of what has gone before, Simon appearing to have misheard the cardinal rule of cinema as, “Tell, don’t show.” Hence, we get an awful lot of scenes of exposition and unnecessary back-chat: I mean, do we really care that one of the girls used to be fat at high-school? Does it matter in the slightest? Meanwhile, seems like at least half the deaths take place off-screen, culminating in a staggering moment where it appears someone is found drowned in a pile of leaves. What? No, really: what? About the only positive to come out of this is Bernadette, who gives Nancy more of a character arc than everyone else in the film combined, her character turning a full 360-degrees over its course.

I guess we should at least be grateful that Simon did not make the obvious artistic decision and turn this into yet another “found footage” abomination. It’s one of the few things which would have made this more of a chore to watch.

Dir: Lou Simon
Star: Jamie Bernadette, Katie Carpenter, Gema Calero, Karishma Lakhani

The Ascent

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“Suffers from a mountain sense of disinterest.”

One year ago, the boyfriend of Emily Wilks (Davis) vanished, along with the mountaineering party he was taking on an ascent of the notoriously lethal Devil’s Peak summit. Emily is no mean climber herself, and still works as a trail guide on the mountain. But the group who have booked her services on this day have another motive: finding the legendary stash of gold they believe is hidden on the mountain, which they believe Emily knows the location. Unable to convince them it’s just a myth, she’s forced to lead the gang through the wilderness. Fortunately, it has many, many potential perils which can be used to thin the herd out.

The IMDb contains a (suspicious?) number of reviews touting the merit of the “director’s cut” of this movie, over the officially released version. But with the former apparently unavailable, we can only review the latter – and it’s severely underwhelming stuff. Davis isn’t the problem, however. The makers choose an actress who actually looks like she could be a climber, with well-defined upper body tone and decent muscles, rather than possessing the twig-like limbs, still seen rather too often. Emily exudes a no-nonsense confidence which also fits her character, and is smart enough to know when to use her physical strength, and when not to.

The problem is… Well, more like the problems are, for just about everything else misfires. First of all, the “mountaineering” scenes are almost entirely shot in super close-up, presumably because the participants were dangling no more than three feet off the ground. It is all completely unconvincing and the movie offers absolutely no sense of danger from the terrain, at any point; far from needing a guide, this mountain looks far more like a literal walk in the park. Large chunks of the plot don’t make much sense either, such as the fight with ice axes which takes place in a desert. [This is perhaps because the makers originally intended to shoot in Alaska, then relocated to Texas – apparently, without bothering to revise the script!] The actions of the villains also often appear to fall into the crevasse marked, “Dumbness necessary to the plot”.

I’m reluctant to condemn completely a film which appears to have been the innocent victim of a tussle between the producer and director. But without access to any other version, the audience here are as much casualties as the movie. Who is responsible for the problems with the other elements, doesn’t matter much, in any final analysis from a neutral observer. You can sense where the writer-director wanted to go with this, and as noted above, I genuinely liked the lead. It isn’t enough, with the undercooked script and weak execution draining most of the film’s nascent promise.

Dir: S.J. Creazzo
Star: Josie Davis, William McNamara, Martin Kove, Martin Kove

Luana, the Girl Tarzan

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“Not the promised thrill adventure of a lifetime.”

luanaDespite a broad range of impressively kick-ass posters, in which renowned artists Frank Frazetta and Russ Manning had a hand, the heroine of the title (Chen) is much more of a supporting role than the star, and that’s a disappointment. While competently made, compared to others of the genre, its failure to deliver what the advertising promises, and indeed much jungle-girling at all, earns it a significant downgrade. The backstory is more or less the usual: a plane crash in darkest Africa leaves one survivor, the three-year-old daughter of a scientist and an Asian princess(!), who somehow survives in the rain-forest. She grows up to wander round her domain with a chimpanzee sidekick, wearing nothing but a loin-cloth and hair that magically affixes itself over her breasts, this being a firmly PG-13 rated jungle romp.

However, the real stars are the scientist’s other daughter, Isabel Donovan (Marandi), who is seeking answers to her father’s disappearance, and jungle guide George Barrett (Saxson). He knows of Luana, having been rescued by her after being attacked by savages on a previous trek into the jungle. Also along on the trip is her father’s partner, the somewhat creepy Norman (Tordi), who appears to have a more than guardian-like interest in Isabel. It soon becomes clear that “someone” – and let’s be honest, you deserve no prizes for guessing who, 30 seconds after they show up – doesn’t want the truth about the crash to be established. Meanwhile, Luana is lurking on the edge, saving her sister from a spider, stealing her clothes when Isabel takes a dip, etc.

It’s a definite shame there wasn’t more Luana, as her character possesses a sweet innocence which is quite endearing, and certainly more fun than watching the bland Isabel and George traipse through another section of faux-jungle or react to the usual stock footage [though this is integrated somewhat better than usual]. For example, witness the scene where Luana tries to figure out how to use a bra; it’s naively charming, and I’d have loved to have seen more of this angle. Indeed, the script itself is solid enough, with a number of sequences which clearly have potential. For example, there’s George arm-wrestling a tribesman, with scorpions set up on either side to greet the loser with their sting. The film also has a carnivorous plant. How can you go wrong with a carnivorous plant?

The answer appears to be director Infascelli, operating under a pseudonym, as he manages to suck the excitement out of every sequence, courtesy of pedestrian execution. But one final anecdote will sum up the overall ineptness here. When the film got US distribution, Ballantine Books commissioned Alan Dean Foster to write a novelization However, the only available copy of the script was in Italian, so Foster wrote a new novel based on the Frazetta poster. I can’t help thinking any film based on that would likely be rather better than the actual movie.

Dir: “Bob Raymond” (Roberto Infascelli)
Star: Glenn Saxson, Evi Marandi, Mei Chen, Pietro Tordi

Treasure of the Golden Cheetah, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

Warning –my review doesn’t contain any spoilers for this book, but it does divulge a major series plot development from the preceding book!

In the 10th century B.C., the kingdom of Sheba (or Saba –the S and Sh sounds were still fluid in the Semitic alphabets of that day) straddled the Arabic and African sides of the southern entrance to the Red Sea, and enjoyed considerable income from its control of that trade route. Both the Old Testament books of I Kings and II Chronicles record a state visit by the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon. Neither of these writers record her name (it varies in the legends, but the most common name given is Balkis or Belkis –English transliterations vary) or much about her, and written records from Sheba at this time have not survived; but she’s also mentioned in the Koran. Jewish, Arabic and Ethiopian legends (the latter written down in the ancient writing Kebra Negast, or “Glory of Kings”) some of which probably preserve actual handed-down oral history, greatly elaborate the story, and the latter makes Solomon out to be the father of her son and heir, Menelik. (The royal house of Ethiopia historically claimed descent from Solomon through Menelik.) The legends of the Masai and other African peoples south of Ethiopia also credit Menelik with a great (and obviously historically memorable) expedition through their territories. This real-life material provides the basis for Jade del Cameron’s fifth adventure.

It’s now the autumn of 1920, and an American silent film company is in Nairobi, preparing to journey south (into what is today the country of Tanzania) to fabled Mount Kilimanjaro, there to film a movie, set partly in ancient and partly in modern times, based on a supposed legend of Emperor Menelik having climbed the mountain to die and be buried near the summit with his treasure. Ever ready to visit other African locales to do an article and photo shoot for “The Traveler” magazine –based on the real-life magazine of that era “Travel”, as Arruda mentions in her fascinating-as-always Author’s Notes– Jade’s agreed to go along as second-in-command (with primary responsibility for looking after the expedition’s female members) to the group’s guide –though she’s less than delighted to learn that the guide is Harry Hascombe, whom series readers have met before. The trip will also give her a chance to think seriously about, and hopefully finally sort out her mixed feelings, about her beau Sam Featherstone’s marriage proposal. But shortly before departure, things get off to an ominous start with a strange murder-suicide just outside Nairobi’s Muthaiga Club.

Much that I’ve said in my reviews of previous books in the series applies to this one, too. All the things that attract its fans are here: a strong, tough heroine with admirable character and with the guts and physical conditioning to handle dangerous challenges (yes, that knife in her boot on the cover picture is going to have to come out of its sheath!), well-drawn and sometimes likeable supporting characters, adventure and danger in a well-realized exotic setting, chaste romance, good writing with bad language kept to a minimum and no explicit sex, an undercurrent of supernaturalism and mystery that never turns the book into supernatural fiction but that adds a dash of that flavor. But I can say that this is one of the strongest books in the series, and presents one of the best constructed mystery plots –in several of the books, I fingered the culprit early on (and twice in the first chapter!), but I didn’t here! This one kept me guessing (wrongly) almost down to the wire. The behind-the-scenes look at the film industry of the 1920s enhanced the book; and though I didn’t recognize the tie-in to Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (never having read that story) until the Author’s Notes explained it, I can recognize now that it was masterfully done. I also appreciated the personal growth here of Jade’s young Kikiyu friend, Jelani.

There are only (so far) two more books in this series; Barb and I have already started reading the sixth installment, The Crocodile’s Last Embrace. I’m hopeful Arruda will eventually write more of them; Jade’s a heroine we both want to keep on spending time with!

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: New American Library (Obsidian imprint), available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.