Primal Force (1999): Shock the Monkey

Ron Perlman vs. mutant baboons! Now he’s got your attention, Matty tells you why you need Nelson McCormick’s slick made-for-TV creature feature in your life.

Anchored by a killer premise — Ron Perlman vs. mutant baboons! — PRIMAL FORCE is an entertaining made-for-TV creature feature that moves with a real spring in its step. Though the supporting cast largely exist to fill out the numbers, Perlman is magnificent as Frank Brodie: a PTSD-addled game warden at once happy to fester in his misery yet desperately seeking redemption. Plagued by vivid, booze-induced nightmares, the hard drinkin’ Brodie is coaxed from a self-imposed exile when a plane carrying an important person or two is downed on his old stomping ground: an elite island hunting retreat populated by primates, genetically enhanced to provide more competitive prey. Much trekking, tracking, and carnage ensues. 

A gifted technician, former doc and ad man Nelson McCormick shuttles over the saggier stretches of actor-cum-scripter Michael Thoma’s teleplay with aplomb, going all in with the gimmicky photography and music video bombast. It’s style over substance for sure, and the whole film is certainly too flashy for its own good at times. Still, such outrageous dynamism never did Sam Raimi and Tony Scott any harm, and Primal Force is packed with enough stirringly rendered images and exciting set pieces to deflect the sort of complaints levelled at McCormick’s subsequent, equally snazzy directorial assignments, the fun — if hollow — remakes of horror favs Prom Night (2008) and The Stepfather (2009).

Like Bats (1999), King Cobra (1999), Blood Surf (2000) and Mosquito Man (2005), Primal Force sports some of the finest practical FX in the entire ‘97 to ‘05 era of DTV creature feature history, prior to CGI becoming the form’s cost-effective lifeblood. Designed and created by the mighty Bart Mixon, the baboons are a delight to behold; a frightening, memorable and ferocious troop augmented by clever staging and intensely acrobatic creature performer work. Interestingly, Mixon previously supplied his IT (1990) collaborator, Tommy Lee Wallace, with the same service on another small screen monster flick, the conceptually similar Danger Island (1992), and Lola Noah — the dancer/actress inside Primal Force’s lead baboon costume — has form in the ‘big monkey’ stakes. She inhabited the main Stan Winston gorilla suit in Congo (1995).

In an additional trivia wrinkle, Primal Force also marks a crossroads in an intriguing ‘what could’ve been’. At the time of its lensing in summer 1998, Mixon had recently finished pre-production commitments on fellow make-up wiz Rob Bottin’s ultimately aborted version of the long-in-development Freddy vs. Jason (2003) — a project that, after Mixon’s departure, Perlman was briefly attached to. As Mixon told Tom Vidovich in 2021:

“We were shooting Primal Force in Mexico, and during the shoot I brought up that I had heard Ron was going to play Jason in Freddy vs. Jason. Ron said that’s right: Rob Bottin was a friend of his, and he was happy to do it.” [1]

Produced by Paramount, Primal Force premiered on the United Paramount Network (UPN) on Thursday 6th May 1999 and bagged the third-best Thursday night rating in the channel’s then-history (2.4/4 homes, 1.5/4 in adults aged eighteen to forty-nine). Thus, UPN, Perlman and McCormick quickly reconvened for trippy military thriller Operation Sandman (2000). Perlman and Mixon, meanwhile, later teamed on Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008).

USA ● 1999 ● Horror, Action, TVM ● 86mins

Ron Perlman, Kimberlee Peterson, Guillermo Rios, Lola Noah (as ‘Lorene Noh’) Dir. Nelson McCormick Wri. Michael Thoma

[1] Rob Bottin’s Unmade Freddy vs. Jason was Going to Star Ron Perlman as Jason Voorhees by Tom Vidovich, Lost River Drive-In, 23rd August 2021.

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