The Crocodile Man (Cambodia, 2005)
The story of The Crocodile Man, I gather, starts in the distant past, where a rich and powerful king-like man with a penchant for murdering defenseless crocs oversteps his bounds and steals off with a young neighbor woman and then maybe sometimes turns into a man-eating crocodile? Or perhaps that only happens after he dies. Unclear. No matter. This is not a film to immerse yourself in: this is a film to delight in, from a great distance away.
Probably I should explain that it is in Khmer, occasionally translated through delightful subtitles that do not always match the film’s action nor, for that matter, standard American English. Spelling is inconsistent: the word “literature” is constructed in three different ways in the film, the word “beautiful” has at least four variations, and at one point the words “spear” and “penis” seem to have been exchanged. Sometimes, however, you cannot see the subtitles at all because an advertisement for a local radio station will flit across the screen. It is also true that my detectiving skills have thus far failed to uncover the exact title of this release. Yet I assure you: if you can find it, you will greatly enjoy it.
Back to our storyline. The plot concerns—well, the plot concerns me. Resurrected in the present day, the Crocodile Man shifts between two states—human, and human-consuming beast—and a group of “litterature” students in the mean time have come to ask the hunter Khek to bring them to a local temple, where they intend to study ancient engravings. The temple is rumored to be haunted, and hunter Khek’s two assistants are duly frightened when they discover where they are headed. Nonetheless, the group continues into the woods, encountering beasts and adventure, eventually stumbling across the temple.
The two assistants form an important plot device. An argumentative comedic duo—Fat and Thin, let’s call them—soon wander off and discover a giant crocodile skull with a massive diamond tooth. This isn’t until almost halfway through the film, however, so you may have found yourself wondering by now if you had picked up the movie Let’s Wander Through the Woods and Get Attacked by Animals by accident. Fat and Thin hide the head in a cave. Thin sneakily extracts the tooth (actually made of a patterned silver foil) behind Fat’s back, and the Crocodile Man wreaks his revenge upon them, later turning his terror toward the others in the group. As predicted when a mysterious shaman-like figure appears three-quarters of the way through the film (no English explanation is given for his presence), the Crocodile Man is finally felled by the power of human emotion. (“You will be died by love,” is the exact admonishment.)
Sound boring? It would be, were it not in fact an incredibly inventive and charming little horror film, largely devoid though it is of genuinely scary moments.
Real animals, for example, get as much screen time as our Crocodile Man, and when they attack, genuine chaos occurs. The soundtrack, likely dubbed from an American horror movie chase scene and put on a Garage Band loop, is droning and repetitive, and totally inappropriate for scenes in which, say, a snake lunges at our heroes but they get away handily. I have no desire to ruin this film for you, but since I doubt you’ll ever be able to track it down, I must explain that the subtitles for these animal attacks look like this:
I have no idea what it’s supposed to refer to, and I don’t care. It is simply too brilliant to question.
Also strangely present are heavy breathing sounds of the actors. Probably this was a production mistake. Maybe it was done purposefully as a way of ensuring the viewer that the characters remained alive. I’ve spent a lot of time with cultural producers in Cambodia in the last few years, and neither answer would surprise me.
Similarly, the special effects deserve particular consideration: no attempt is made to integrate them into the storyline, nor do they seamlessly trick the viewer into an otherwise impossible experience. Scenes that take place at night were seemingly shot at night—maybe for purposes of authenticity, sure, but this technique does convey the distinct discomfort of, you know, not being able to see what is happening in the movie.
Such attempts can only be read as a delightful desire to communicate truthfully, even if unnecessarily. “We’re seeing the water,” one scripted line goes, as the camera pans across a nice stream. It is a film you will never understand, even if, Cambodians assure me, you speak Khmer. It is instead a joyfully constructed little film that is not intended to scare you. It is intended only to remind you that horror exists. It is just very, very far away.