Fans of international horror already know that Shudder is the top streamer when it comes to recent genre films from other countries, and its Indonesian selection is particularly robust. One realm that could use more entries, though, is horror from Africa, with the new release Saloum making a powerful case for the cause.
In its opening scenes, Saloum has a style that roars in like a flashy ‘90s action film—freeze-frames to introduce the various characters, etc.—courtesy of Congolese director Jean Luc Herbulot, who also penned the script from a story co-written with Pamala Diop. But it also blends some heavy foreshadowing into all that rapid-fire exposition, with a narrator letting us know a quest for revenge will interrupt the adventures of “the Bangui Hyenas,” a trio of mercenaries who’re getting the hell out of Guinea-Bissau in the wake of the country’s 2003 military coup, bringing with them their client (a drug kingpin) and a rather large amount of stolen gold.
When they realize their plane has been damaged and won’t make it to their intended destination of Dakar, Senegal, they touch down in the country’s isolated region of Sine-Saloum. Here, the pace slows down and becomes more of a slow burn, with landscape shots letting us know just how far from any population center we’ve traveled. “I’ve spent enough time in Saloum to know I don’t want to stay here very long,” mutters Chaka (Yann Gael) as he and Rafa (Roger Sallah) find a temporary hiding place for their loot, then set out with fellow Hyena Midnight (Mentor Ba) and passenger Félix (Renaud Farah) in search of fuel, supplies, and a temporary hideout.
The gold, however, is nothing but a MacGuffin—and their arrival in swampy Sine-Saloum is hardly random. “And that’s where it started,” our narrator teases, as the men trudge toward a holiday camp that Chaka remembers from his childhood. Flashbacks hint at other things Chaka carries with him from his early life; we won’t get into details here, but the fact that he’s keeping some devastating secrets from his fellow Hyenas, who are like brothers to him, becomes a major problem. “What you’re hiding will kill us,” warns Midnight, the most mystical among the trio, who’s had some alarming premonitions of danger. Though they do their best to blend in with their fellow guests at the camp run by Omar (Galiam Bruno Henry)—who has a very back-to-the-land approach to doing business, insisting everyone do chores and good deeds rather than offer payment—it’s soon obvious certain other visitors know who the Hyenas are, with their own specific reasons for tracking them down.
The tension builds much like you’d expect it to, and you can’t help but root for the outlaws, Chaka in particular once we learn what he’s up to. But Saloum isn’t merely an action thriller—there are supernatural monsters afoot, and the way they tie into Chaka’s story is truly startling, drawing on local folklore that’s unfortunately explained a bit too quickly for unfamiliar viewers to fully understand, but with visuals that make its deadly fallout absolutely crystal clear. Running just over 80 minutes, with no unnecessary scenes interfering with the way it places the puzzle pieces of its plot, Saloum’s unique setting is really what makes it work. We’ve seen “badass antiheroes shooting their way out of a small town” done dozens of times, but never under the genuinely alarming circumstances this movie conjures into existence.
Saloum is now playing in select theaters, with more to come; you can also catch it streaming on Shudder starting September 8.
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