It is rare indeed that we get to see an African film in the western world, let alone a high-budget project with a good amount of hype from its festival premier. Then there is Saloum, the latest film from Congolese Director Jean Luc Herbulot (Dealer 2014, Falco series), and is one of the most interesting Horror-adjacent films in recent years. Available on Horror streaming service Shudder as of September 8, 2022, it combines elements of traditional African folklore, Gangster films, Westerns, and Horror into an unique blend of entertainment that is refreshingly original.
The story of Saloum focuses on an enigmatic trio of mercenaries known as Bangui’s Hyenas, who at the start of the film, are working amid the chaos of the very real military coup in Guinea-Bissau in 2003. Their goal is to extract a Mexican drug dealer and his ample wealth in gold bars, and leave the country before it’s too late.
As fate would have it, during the course of their escape, they are forced to divert to the neighboring nation of Senegal, in a resort called Baobab Camp in the region of Saloum. It seems like a decent place to hide away, but its relaxing atmosphere belies a horrifying, ancient secret. Additionally, the trio’s infamy does not serve them well when trying to hide. They know the place is more than it seems, but exactly what is and who knows of them is unclear. The tension is thick from the time they get to Saloum, well before heavy supernatural elements are introduced. It is the human components that are the true driving gears of the story.
This story laid out, Saloum succeeds in many ways, not the least of which is establishing several interesting characters in a short time. The trio of mercenaries themselves, Leader Chaka (Yann Gael: The French Dream series, 1899 series), muscle/heavy Rafa (Roger Sallah: Renaissance series, ZeroZeroZero series), and mystic Minuit (Mentor Ba: Golden series) are all unique in look and vibe besides all having special forces-level combat ability. The resort’s head, Omar (Bruno Henry: Dealer 2014, Safari Park 2017) is friendly and amicable, and Chaka said he knows him yet Omar does not remember Chaka – an important plot element viewers will soon discover.
There is also a deaf/mute woman named Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen: Cacao series), who is one of the best in the film. She puts on a wonderful performance despite only speaking in sign language; her character knows too much and is brave, perhaps also too much. All of these characters plus a few more supports have excellent chemistry with each other, and their clashing personalities keep the viewer invested in what comes next.
Overall, the cinematography is impressive, especially the wide, scenic shots of the vastness of the land. Everything in this movie will be unfamiliar to most western viewers, and the land is no different in that regard. There is some frantic editing during the action scenes that is similar to the Bourne movies, but the style works better here, at first during the chaos of the extraction and escape, and later to mitigate the problems of the mediocre CGI. The film is almost entirely spoken in French, and the action is fierce and looks just as good as almost any Hollywood production, and is choreographed well.
However, Saloum’s best quality is its writing. It is no easy feat to balance so much at once and do it well. The characters are complex, their needs and motivations different; they are very human and the way they see and interact with the world shows it. The folklore of the horror elements of Saloum is very interesting, and something different from a culture we don’t get much horror from over here. Everything in the story – the mercenaries, the powerful, the downtrodden, the folklore, and even the land itself all need to be delved. The fact that it is all so interesting is testament to the quality of storytelling.
In the end, Saloum is much more of an Action film than Horror, but the Horror elements, like most of the writing, is weaved within a greater human story that enhances it. It somehow exists in a universe where real world events and problems exist, yet it doesn’t feel out of place that supernatural things of different levels also exist. It is a film that takes viewers where they won’t expect, with characters they will care about who will become more relatable as the story progresses. This is exactly the sort of thing people who are bored with Hollywood tropes want to see; something distinctly foreign in culture but human in its feeling and messages. One of the year’s best surprises, Cryptic Rock gives Saloum 4 out of 5 stars.