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Shudder Secrets: Saloum

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A character in Jean Luc Herbulot’s Saloum says, “Here, they say that revenge is like a river…and our actions are the dugouts guided by the current.” While this statement pertains to a character’s specific backstory, it can also very much describe the number of twists and turns that this genre-bending film takes in the course of a lean 80 minutes. The Shudder original is a dazzling and arresting piece of filmmaking out of West Africa, a sociopolitical thriller about oppression and colonialism. It contains monsters rooted in folklore that are either native to the land or crafted solely for this feature.

Just when you think you can pin down Saloum’s genre, it tugs you in another direction, like a river current. This one is part drama, part horror, and even part western. But it’s anchored by three captivating anti-heroes, mercenaries that are villains to some and heroes to others.

Saloum’s Anti-Hero Mercenaries

Set against a sociopolitical backdrop that feels all too real, the film opens in 2003. Bright title credits announce the names of the three protagonists/mercenaries, Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah), and Minuit (Mentor Ba). Each has their own distinction, marked by physical characteristics, like Rafa’s gold beard and mohawk or Minuit’s long white dreads, or personal characteristics, like Minuit’s deep spirituality or Chaka’s violent and traumatic past, shown through brief flashbacks, which also bookend the film.

The trio barely escapes a coup in Guinea-Bissau before they’re shot down over Saloum, Senegal, a place of mystery and mysticism. Accompanying them is local cartel lord Felix (Renaud Farah). The group eventually discovers the seemingly idyllic Baobab Camp where they hope to find “fuel, resin, and relaxation,” all while staying undercover. The camp is led by the all-too cheery Omar (Bruno Henry). Though he lets the group stay, it comes with a catch. They have to complete chores each morning as a price for their stay. As Rafa puts it, “So we stay for free, but we’re their bitch for three days.”

On the surface, the camp seems just fine. Chaka insists that they stay, go with the flow, and remain undercover, at least until they develop a more solid plan. Yet, something seems off. Minuit’s intuition senses it almost immediately, as if the land is cursed. Like Rafa, he doesn’t think they should stay. Perhaps more importantly, everyone at the camp just seems shady, as if they’re harboring their own secrets. One of them, a mute and deaf woman, Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen) knows exactly who the mercenaries are and threatens to blow their cover if they don’t take her with them. It’s another layer atop a film that already drips with suspense and intrigue. To top it off, a cop also stays at the camp, adding another potential threat.

Saloum’s Inventive Monsters

The film is steeped in its own mythos, dispensed by a few of the camp’s visitors. These scenes are when the film may get a little too heavy for some. However, even if the mythos won’t make sense to everyone, it doesn’t mean the film buckles under its own weight. In short, horned and red-eyed creatures suddenly attack the village. They’re vengeful spirits of Sira Bana surrounded by swarms of flies. As one puts it, “If you hear them, they’ll kill you.” To avoid this, Chaka, Rafa, and Minuit slap on headphones. Armed with axes and guns, they try to find a way off the island.

Courtesy of Shudder

The creatures are awesome and terrifying. They swarm a victim, causing a horrific death that involves coughing up blood. To fully understand their backstory and mythos may involve more than one watch, or at least replaying a few scenes. That said, you don’t need to comprehend their full story to understand they’re angry, fast-moving, and vicious. They won’t stop until everyone’s dead.

Final Verdict

Overall, Saloum is an engaging and entertaining feature. It blends genres with ease and has three captivating anti-heroes at its core. As Awa says at one point of the trio, “Some stories fly faster than bullets.” This is a film that builds up its own lore and characters without ever collapsing under its own depth and weight.

The director has a strong second feature here that’s at times touching while at other times funny or horrific. I look forward to whatever he does next. The film builds to a haunting end sequence and one potent final image that’s not easy to shake after the credits roll.

Saloum drops on Shudder on September 8. Stay up to date on the streaming service’s exclusive and original content this spooky season by following my Shudder Secrets column.