The Cannibal in the Jungle is a horror mockumentary produced by Animal Planet, which blends fact and fiction. The fact is the existence of Homo floresiensis, an ancient, distant ancestor of man, which lived possibly as recently as 13,000 years ago. The species resided on the island of Flores in Indonesia and earned the name “hobbits” in the scientific community, as they stood about 3.5 feet tall. The species has been linked to the story Ebu gogo, a legendary creature spoken of by the natives of Flores. The creatures are said to be small, hairy humanoids who have been known to steal food and even children. Sightings of Ebu-gogo were reported as late as the 20th century.
The fiction is the story of Dr. Timothy Darrow, an American ornithologist who, in 1977, travels with a team to search for a lost species in the jungles of Flores. The two other members of his team are violently killed, and Darrow is accused of murdering and cannibalizing them. However, Darrow claims that his friends were killed by savage human-like ape creatures they encountered in the depths of the jungle.
Decades later, anthropologist Dr. Richard Hoernbeck—supposedly part of the team who discovered the first Homo floresiensis skeleton—becomes convinced that Darrow was telling the truth, and the creatures he saw were living Homo floresiensis. He sets out to Flores with a documentary crew to search the jungle for evidence, including attempting to locate Darrow’s lost Super 8 camera, on which he claims to have recorded the truth of what happened in the jungle all those years ago.
Reason for Filming
The mockumentary is primarily made up of footage taken by Hoernbeck’s camera crew. There are several interview segments interspersed throughout, with scientists, reporters, police, and Darrow himself. Hoernbeck provides narration, sometimes talking into the camera while sitting in a lab after the main events of the movie.
The camera crew also records Hoernbeck’s expeditions into the jungle, retracing the footsteps of Darrow and his team. While there is a definite sense of danger, a situation never arisesin which it is unbelievable that the crew would continue filming.
The story is supplemented by snatches of Super 8 footage taken by Darrow in 1977. Darrow does continue to film during some perilous situations, yet, he the film does a good job of characterizing him as a scientist who feels strongly about recording evidence of a new species, even to the point of ignoring his own safety. When his life is directly endangered, though, he does put down the camera and run.
Found Footage Purity
The film features titles and includes non-diegetic music, but only what would be featured in an actual documentary. Hoernbeck’s segments in the jungle, the interviews, news segments, and Super 8 footage all stick to found footage conventions.
Rather than pressing the plausibility of Darrow’s filming or relying on Darrow’s narration to explain the events of 1977, the film elects to include non-found footage dramatic reenactments of the original expedition. Reenactments would plausibly be included in a real documentary of this type; however, despite thejustification, the reenactment segments are jarring and extensive enough to take away from the overall found footage feel of the movie, though theydon’t necessarily distract from the realism.
There is one moment, however, in one of the reenactment scenes that does break the purity of the mockumentary format. The young Darrow is being menaced by a creature standing behind him. The music and look on the actor’s face convey that, even though he can’t see it, he is aware of the threat and deciding what to do next. An offscreen voice is then heard whispering “Run.” The voice comes from none of the characters in the scene. It’s possible this was meant to be the reenactment’s interpretation of a voice in Darrow’s head warning him, but there is no narration from Darrow to back this up. This one line goes against even the conventions set up within the bounds of a dramatic reenactment.
For a TV movie, the production values are high. The practical gore effects are effectively done and unexpectedly graphic. The costuming on the creatures is quite good, fooling the viewer into believing that they aren’t just looking at a man in a suit. Even the CGI, while certainly not Industrial Light and Magic, doesn’t distract from the action. The length, detail, and quality of the reenactment segments does strain credibility as to what would realistically be included in a documentary.
The Cannibal in the Jungle follows on the heels of Animal Planet’s other scripted mockumentary, Mermaids: The Body Found. While Mermaids had some viewers fooled, The Cannibal has a stronger found footage element and is more clearly fictional, given the extremity of the content. However, there is at least one review on the film’s IMDB page from a viewer who was convinced through most of the film that it was a real, and was offended on discovering that he’d been fooled. There are few higher compliments a found footage film could receive. Both director Simon George andwriters CharlieFoley and Vaibhav Bhatt have years of experience creating actual television documentaries, which explains their ability to so accurately mimic the format.
The scientific facts at the root of the film add an extra level of interest and realism. In addition, the description of Homo floresiensis and the Ebu gogo legend, the filmmakers include other real-life scientific references. The film includes genuine footage of species thought to be extinct, but later discovered to be still living in the wild, adding credibility to the film’s conceit that the hobbits have survived to this day.
Again, probably due to the documentary backgroundof the director, as well as director of photography Joel Devlin, the cinematography in the film is consistent with what would be expected in a genuine nature documentary. At no point did the camerawork from from Hoernbeck’s crew come across as implausible for a crew of professional, experienced videographers. The few clips of news footage are all nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. (The press conference announcing the discovery of the first Homo floresiensis skeleton was so convincing that, after the film was over, I had to double check that it hadn’t used a clip of the actual press conference).
The short bits of Super 8 footage are consistent with the technology and the situations in which they are being filmed. They add a refreshing variety to the overall visual style of the film. One creative element The Cannibal in the Jungle introduces is a set of motion-sensing cameras placed by Hoernbeck’s crew at keypoints in the jungle and left for several months, in an attempt to record the creatures. This enables the characters to film without physically being in the area and without having to sift through immense, unrealistic amounts of footage to only record relevant action.
The acting in The Cannibal in the Jungle is all-around exemplary. All of the main actors turn in believable and emotional performances. Jim Sturgeon (Hoernbeck) sells the mannerisms of a polished scientist and documentarian, while also subtly portraying the veneer of professionalism slipping under fear. The two actors playing Tim Darrow (excluding an actor seen only briefly in the Super 8 footage) steal the show. Richard Brake (old Darrow) conveys years of grief and regret in a single interview, shown in one static shot that could easily have come across as dull with a less talented actor.
Simon Ginty (young Darrow) has more to do and does it well. He makes the viewer feel every bit of his initial optimism and innocence, followed slowly-growing terror. He is backed up by Sam Swainsbury (Gary Ward) and Ping Medina ( Reg Saputra) as the other two scientists, who turn in similarly visceral performances. Miriam Lucia (Susan Clemens) as Darrow’s sister has only a few minutes of screen time, but her brief performance is utterly heartbreaking.
The Cannibal in the Jungle seems to owe a debt to the original found footage film Cannibal Holocaust. Both are about a Westerner traveling into the jungle to investigate the mysterious, gruesome deaths of another group, including recovering the first group’s lost footage, which is used to tell part of the story. However, the newer Cannibal film replaces the original’s theme of man’s inhumanity to man with one of celebration of the scientific spirit.
The film is composed of two intertwined storylines: Hoernbeck’s investigation in the modern day and Darrow’s expedition in 1977 as shown in reenactment. The movie expertly builds tension in both arcs, as the two groups of scientists wander further into danger. Hoernbeck’s determination to find the Homo floresiensis, apparently blithely disregarding that the creatures killed the scientists whose trail he’s following, is initially frustrating for the audience. You want to scream at him to just turn back. However, at the same time, the film succeeds in his characterization as a man blinded by curiosity, and seeing that confidence slip adds to the growing sense of peril.
In addition to “creature in the woods” scares, the film createsa compelling mystery, as Hoernbeck interviews experts, tracks down witnesses, and searches for evidence. Even though the audience knows from the beginning that the Homo floresiensis are responsible for the murders, the film is still able to maintain interest in watching the characters solve the mystery themselves. It also knows to keep some questions unanswered and doesn’t provide the audience with an ending wrapped up in a neat bow. Animal Planet’s first mockumentary Mermaids: The Body Found received a follow-up film, Mermaids: The New Evidence. The Cannibal in the Jungle leaves room for, and most certainly deserves, a sequel of its own.