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Cool-Handed Senegalese Horror Hybrid Saloum Is Thrilling and Cocky

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Cool-Handed Senegalese Horror Hybrid <i>Saloum</i> Is Thrilling and Cocky

Jean Luc Herbulot’s take on mysticism, mercenaries and Senegalese culture in Saloum scratches a badass Robert Rodriguez itch. Its approach to genre elevation meets at the corner of Western African tragedies and infernal escape plans, all of which smell of rebellious gunsmoke. Herbulot pens a screenplay about revenge obsessions and smuggled treasure as militant rebels collide with literal demons from Senegal folklore. “Once upon a time in Africa,” reads the film’s poster, blatantly recalling Sergio Leone and, later, Robert Rodriguez—which isn’t that presumptuous a comparison to tout. Saloum might not have the budget, but there’s no lack of confidence behind the cool-handed executions paying respect to pulp.

The year is 2003, amidst a coup d’état. A trio of mercenaries known as “Bangui’s Hyenas” are tasked with escorting a drug lord out of Guinea-Bissau, along with his massive haul of gold blocks. Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah) and Minuit (Mentor Ba) are legends of their craft—but their latest assignment is derailed when their aircraft starts leaking fuel. Chaka instructs Rafa to steer towards Sine-Saloum, where they’ll stay at a community compound where rooms are traded for chores. Omar (Bruno Henry) welcomes Chaka’s crew with two rooms, a liquor bottle and dinner—Chaka assures his battle brothers they’ll be gone in three nights. A promise the fearless leader cannot keep.

Opening sequences prioritize the characterization of Senegal through narrated anecdotes, sprawling landscape shots and the personalities of the Hyenas. They’re described as sorcerers and mercs—Minuit knocks foes unconscious with a puff of dust blown through his wrapped hand. Herbulot doesn’t lose us to Senegalese traditions, and Gana Sira Bana’s curse upon the Bainouk people injects fantastical fabled horrors. Saloum doesn’t shy from this deep national immersion, in the same way Jayro Bustamante or Joko Anwar cultivate tremendous genre tales that proudly wave their countries’ flags.

There’s scant horror until later into Saloum, after characters have plenty of time to reveal secret identities and shoot dagger glances during otherwise civil feasts. Chaka’s first words to Omar tease a shared but forgotten history. Other characters like deaf and mute Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen) or police captain Souleyman (Ndiaga Mbow) threaten to expose the Hyenas as expert assassins, not gold miners. Herbulot cheekily navigates tense exchanges and veiled threats through commonplace dialogue, like Chaka smiling his toothy grin while assuring Omar, “You’ll be sick to death of us.” The collective cast splendidly tiptoes across broken glass; any blown cover will turn Omar’s hideaway into a shootout. Rafa as the loose cannon, Minuit as the stoic wise man, Chaka as the tormented soul—everyone plays their part, waging performative wars before the safeties flip off.

As horror agitation overtakes and bodily harm becomes the norm, Saloum ditches its deception and goes all-out. Special effects squirt juicy blood as victims succumb to unearthly demises caused by spiritual haunters that look like swirling black hordes of plague-era flies. It’s an appropriate blend of practical gore and digital monsters that presents something ghastly but still vanquishable. Chaka can blast away the possessed entities with his trusty Remington pistol and combat their finishing move as long as his ears are covered (with headphones, for example). Herbulot shrouds much of Saloum in mystery, until Chaka reveals the revenge that weighs heavy like tidal waves crashing from above. Then it’s all frantic gunshots, ancestral guardians and reopened passageways spewing frightening foes.

Saloum struggles most when navigating an early second act where everyone has to play nice during work hours—the calm before unholy storms. Omar and Chaka are paired for fishing duties, which turns out to be a cover for shooting poachers in the behind. We learn about greedy white invaders threatening the Sengalese ecosystem on top of robbing locals of resources, yet there’s no effort to give us the payoff of Omar and Chaka blasting their targets on-screen. Herbulot skims over connective scenes and loses characters within an overall shuffle, but only on a subplot level. The main drivers behind Chaka’s motivations, Awa’s blackmail and other stronger arcs strike like a cock-backed hammer.

There’s plenty to dig about Saloum, from its dark magic to colorful caricatures. Herbulot serves thrills beyond the headshots and urges his players to embrace their cockiest postures. There’s where the Rodriguez parallels solidify—everyone’s playing cheeky games, basking in their objective-based glories. There’s something of an it-factor that Saloum possesses, though it doesn’t have the steadiest handling of entertaining distractions that relieve major plotlines along the way. Still, the way of the gun wins out for Herbulot, putting Senegalese horror hybrids on the map.

Director: Jean Luc Herbulot
Writer: Jean Luc Herbulot
Starring: Yann Gael, Evelyne Ily Juhen, Roger Sallah, Mentor Ba, Bruno Henry, Renaud Farah, Ndiaga Mbow
Release Date: September 2, 2022


Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.