Last night my wife and I got to have a little Mystery Science Theater 3000-type viewing of the recently released stinkbomb, Primeval, as we were the only two people in the theater (the only other people in the theater left about 1/3 of the way through). I grew up watching bad movies, films like Alligator (written by John Sayles, no less) being among my favorites (see Orca, Tentacles, Piranha, Prophecy, THEM!, Frogs, Grizzly, etc. for more examples) and almost always on TV every other month or so via TNT/Sci-Fi/TBS/FOX. Come to think of it, I spent a good deal of my childhood watching monster movies (begging my parents to stay up late), playing with my Legos and trying not to think about the weird noises in the night that became all-too-abundant after the film ended. I never really grew out of the phase, seeking out real life monsters rather than giving them up, and I still love anything that has to do with dinosaurs, sharks, crocodiles, or man-eating monsters born via radioactive sludge in films, expecting nothing much and having a good time ripping on the bad production values. If it gives you any indication of the quality of the movie, Primeval gave my wife and I plenty of material to riff on.
Before I go any further, I do want to say thank you to my wife for coming along with me to the film, indulging my boyish tendency to go out and watch monster movies even though I know they’re going to be utterly appalling. As she commented after we left the theater, she was surprised Primveal got a theatrical release, the special effects just a step above horrid Sci-Fi Channel original movies like Mammoth (the worst movie I have EVER seen, EVER!) and Attack of the Sabertooth. Indeed, during the first nighttime appearance of the films killer crocodile, it looked like it was a CGI-version of the old stop-motion animation style of Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen, exaggerated and fast movements of the featured creature in order to make it seem more “lifelike.” Even when we got to see the croc in full daylight, the CGI paled in comparison to what could have been achieved with puppets, and giving it an endless supply of stamina as it awkwardly galloped after Orlando Jones was incredibly silly. Granted, crocodiles look silly when they “gallop” anyway, but whoever did the biomechanics research for this movie obviously has never seen a fast-moving crocodilian. I really don’t understand why move companies put so much into crappy CGI-rendered monsters when puppets look better and add to the realism of the film; the sharks in the film Deep Blue Sea looked great as puppets but horrid as CGI-rendered monsters. There’s plenty of gore in the film as well, but usually it’s so dark it’s hard to make out what exactly is being ripped apart (except at the end when the crocodile pops the main human antagonists head like a grape), and in classic movie-monster style it knows how to take out underwater supports of a pier in order to get at the humans, it literally sniffs out the bad guy at the end, it eats a soldier about to rape a woman, it has an endless amount of energy & cunning, so really nothing like a real crocodile at all. What is more frightening to me are the real animals, the ones that are so swift, deadly, and quiet that you often attacks are little more than someone bathing never to you and then they’re suddenly gone in a swirl of water. Such is an account in the car-wreck of a coffee table book The Eyelids of Morning, in which a young man was standing on a rock in a body of water and then he suddenly wasn’t there, appearing a short way downriver in the jaws of a Nile Crocodile, which later was caught and the young man’s legs were extracted from the crocs stomach (framed in a blood-spattered cardboard box in the book). Such events are enough to keep me out of Africa’s rivers, lakes, and streams.
Primeval would have been bad enough if it was simply concocted by a group of executives who decided that Lake Placid was a great work of cinema, but it’s actually loosely inspired by a real killer crocodile named Gustave (named by Burundians for a ruthless president during civil war). Studied almost exclusively by Patrice Faye, a French self-proclaimed naturalist, Gustave lives in the waterways of Burundi, especially Lake Tanganyika and Rusizi River, reportedly reaching a length of 20 feet and weighing a ton (suggesting he has long surpassed the average 45-year longevity of most Nile Crocodiles). Such a large crocodile is enough to make people afraid by merit of its size alone, but Gustave has been charged with over 200 human deaths (as well as one adult hippo), the body count going ever-higher.
The above picture is one of the few I’ve seen of Gustave, the few pictures floating around on the internet not having much for scale in the pictures and most of the pictures Faye has taken have not made it to public viewing, apparently. While on assignment to track down the killer croc, the National Geographic team dispatched never found Gustave, and there has been little to no news about the whereabouts of the creature since 2005. The National Geographic article about the expedition has an editor’s note update, suggesting that Gustave has not been seen since at least November of 2006 (the rainy season making it difficult to track him), although 10 more deaths have been added to the list of fatalities. There is little doubt that Gustave has killed many people, but many remain skeptical of his legendary appetite for human flesh, seeming more like a catch-all explanation whenever anyone goes missing or gets taken by any crocodile. Indeed, how can you tell the size (or identity) of a crocodile when they are underwater? The one characteristic that seems to confirm the genuine attacks from other incidents is the fact that Gustave bears a dark scar on his head, something that is independently confirmed by those who get a good look at him during attacks. We know crocodiles kill and eat many people in various parts of the world every year (there’s no such thing as a “man-eating crocodile” because at least for saltwater and Nile crocodiles, they all have the propensity to do it if the opportunity arises), and it’s easy to believe that a crocodile of such gargantuan size would have an appetite to match, but there seems to be little actual evidence to back this up. Indeed, I haven’t seen any official reports made, books published, or other scientific discussions of case studies for those supposedly killed by Gustave (as is done with shark attacks via the Global Shark Attack File) and Faye doesn’t seem in much of a hurry to get empirical data out to the scientific community at large. Sure, everyone knows of Gustave and would like to catch him for study, but he has become more of a living legend to be captured/exploited than an actual animal to be studied. If Gustave is anything like the mythology makes him out to be, such a case study would be very illuminating from the perspective of ethology and human/ecological interactions, but it seems that the few scientists who have gone there have been so enthralled with trying to catch Leviathan for the cameras that all other empirical study doesn’t mean very much. I don’t mean this as a put-down to people like Brady Barr (the scientist who went with National Geographic), but what if we took the focus off trying to catch the animal and instead tried to figure out what the role of such a huge animal is in an ecosystem and what he is eating.
I don’t know if the mystery of Gustave will ever be fully solved, and it is likely that his story will fade away into obscurity over time. In places that are impoverished and torn by war, who has time to think about monsters in their own backyard? Once such places become developed, then all that was once wild is either tamed or exterminated, so either way Gustave seems more like a remnant of the mystery and danger Africa used to represent when it was still (dubiously) known as the “Dark Continent,” and because such mystery and the Jungian need to still have monsters in today’s world, I don’t think we’re ever going to know as much as we should about such a magnificent animal.