Congolese director Jean Luc Herbulot crafted this action-thriller set in the titular region in Senegal, an eerily abandoned network of marshes and waterways in which ghosts (literal and figurative) seem to lurk in the shadows. That’s an apt setting for the story, which follows three mercenaries known as Bangui’s Hyenas, who have become something like folk heroes among communities in western and central Africa, battling the forces of power and helping the poor and oppressed. After escaping a coup in Guinea-Bissau with a Mexican drug dealer and his stash of gold, they hide out in Saloum and encounter something that manifests their traumatic pasts and their thirst for revenge. 

Director: Jean Luc Herbelot
Producers: Pamela Diop, Jean Luc Herbulot
Writers: Pamela Diop, Jean Luc Herbulot
Cinematography: Gregory Corandi
Editors: Nicolas Desmaison, Alasdair McCulloch, Sébastien Prangère
Music: Reksider
Cast: Yann Gael, Evelyne Ily Juhen, Roger Sallah, Mentor Ba, Bruno Henry, Marielle Salmier, Babacar Oualy, Ndiaga Mbow
Runtime: 84 minutes
Countries of Origin: Senegal/France
Distributor: Elle Driver
Premiere: September 16, 2021 (Toronto International Film Festival)
US Release: September 2, 2022

The first half of Saloum is very strong, offering a distinct spin on the kind of thing John Carpenter did so well in the first half of his career: a tight-knit group in a confined space, coming face to face with an unknown threat. There’s a marvelous sense of visual style early on, especially in a scene in which the mercenaries attend a tense dinner at a remote inn, where the proprietor, the other guests, and a police officer who suddenly shows up all seem to hide their own secrets. This scene is practically perfectly edited, using increasingly close camera angles to ratchet up a sense of dread. Gradually, it becomes clear that one of the mercenaries, Chaka (Yann Gael), is haunted by a trauma from his past that has led them to Saloum, but the vengeance he intends to wreak is interrupted by the arrival of a monster that represents the violent history of both this character and the land around them.

Unfortunately, the second half of Saloum is drastically inferior, relying on cheap CGI that’s never scary for a moment. Once upon a time, low-budget horror movies depicted their monsters through practical effects or suggestion and implication, finding ways to work around their lack of funds and resources. Saloum instead uses mediocre graphics (the visual effects were by the company LIGHT) that dissipate the tension the first half of the film builds so well. Had Saloum‘s monster(s) stayed mostly offscreen, or been seen in ominous glimpses, it might have been more effective.

The movie also tends to overplay its themes of personal/societal trauma leading to a cycle of violence perpetuated by the thirst for revenge. These are compelling ideas, and Saloum explicitly connects them to recent conflicts in some African countries (Chaka is a former child soldier who rampaged through Mozambique, Angola, and elsewhere). But welding those themes with an increasingly skimpy and cliched horror-thriller is uneven at best and tasteless at worst. It takes a deft balance to present extremely upsetting real-world trauma through the conventions of the horror or fantasy genres, and Saloum doesn’t quite have the handle on tone or character nuance to achieve that balance.

Even so, Saloum is worth seeing for its solid start, its culturally unique spin on familiar horror tropes, and its winking, ingratiating sense of humor. Especially intriguing is the fact that the film’s monster attacks its human victims by stealing their senses, suddenly turning them blind and/or deaf. This is a clever way to present the idea that the inclination to shut out the horrors of the outside world, while temporarily shielding oneself from trauma, can only lead to further violence and victimization. There’s an effective irony in the fact that one of the film’s strongest characters is a deaf-mute woman named Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), who is able to confront these allegorical monsters directly despite (or because of) her impairment. Chaka may not be capable of the same resiliency as he struggles to overcome the cruelty in his past — a sobering theme, even if Saloum doesn’t always express it as effectively as it could.

by Matthew Cole Levine

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