Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert, David Whelan
Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert, David Whelan
Noe Montes as Francisco Salazar
David Saucedo as David Castillo
Edward L. Green as Gus Greer
At the get-go, it wasn’t exactly clear what this film was. Is it a documentary? No. Although that is what you’re intended to believe (and boy, do the filmmakers sell you on it). Is it some sort of 48 Hours crime-drama primetime show wannabe? Sort of. My first thought was that this would be a lot like the little-knownLake Mungo (which I’ve touted before – also something you should see). And Savagelandis certainly cut from the same cloth. And finally, is the film a fresh (or rotten as the case may be) re-imagining of a zombie film? Imagine my joy as a life-long undead film fan, to learn that…yes. Yes it is.
One night in 2011, the small Arizona border town of Sangre De Cristo became the site of one of the largest mass murders in US history. The following morning, all 57 residents were found to be either dead or missing (presumed deceased) – with the exception of one – amateur photographer Francisco Salazar (played by Noe Montes). Bloody trails went off into the desert. Pieces of blood-stained clothing and random samples of DNA were found all over town. Salazar was immediately taken into custody as the only suspect. Through the film’s investigation – consulting and interviewing authorities, a fellow photographer, a journalist, a court-appointed psychologist, a right-wing radio host and through many forensic evaluations – as well as on-camera statements from relatives of the victims and Salazar’s sister too – the terrifying story is told. But nothing can truly illustrate the horrors of that night and what it was that Salazar faced, until the photos he took – are shown. Even now, I get chills thinking about those blurry images.
There are only a few horror films of the past decade which I found truly unnerving – the aforementioned Lake Mungo, the original Paranormal Activity and yes, the very divisive It Follows. But even though those films touched some primal nerve, Savageland reaches and indeed, digs at something even deeper within. This film has in its corner, the very definition of a slow burn. Those black and white pictures (very reminiscent of the original Night of the Living Dead) will stick with me – perhaps forever. Make room for this film (as I already have on my personal fave film list), which received its Utah premiere at last week’s 2nd Annual FilmQuest Festival.
I don’t want to give too much away, as the ultimate pleasure of the film is how it draws you in. It takes you to places you wouldn’t expect, and when the filmmakers really pull out the big guns (Salazar’s photographs of that bloody night), perhaps you’ll say out loud with paranoid exasperation, as I did, “Well, so much for a sound sleep tonight.”
And the key to selling a film like this (sadly, I doubt this will ever find a large audience) is having solid performances. This is the type of film which should be lauded for its acting. It’s not flashy. It’s not bold. It’s just real. If the filmmakers can’t bring out reality from their actors, their carefully built “documentary” façade will fail. All of the actors are spot-on, but the one who blew my mind is the actress portraying the widow of one of the victims (the series of photos of her husband taken by Salazar are among the most stomach-turning).
This is not a film with “boo” moments (although some of those photos are shriek-worthy), but for its dread and foreboding atmosphere, it will rank highly for the fear it creates.
My one and only complaint: the little added-on “shock” ending should have been avoided. Frankly, leaving the film-goer with this over-done epilogue is what keeps me from givingSavageland a perfect score. Up to this point, you had constructed something so technically lovely that to tack on this drivel was upsetting, a gross mis-step and absolutely unnecessary. The idea that these events may well continue was great, but to actually show them was a bad call.
The other interesting things about Savageland were the very political statements (on both sides) that it chose to make when discussing immigration and illegal aliens. No doubt this film will stir up heated debate about such issues – well beyond the fear it will instill. Sangre De Cristo is a border town and as the only suspect, Salazar is an apparently undocumented worker from Mexico. Draw your own conclusions as to how this will be handled by the “authorities” in the picture.
As I mentioned, Savageland takes its time, which is part of its magic. The photos are shown quickly early on, and then one of the experts takes us on a tour of the town – based on the order of the photographs – and how Salazar must have moved about on the night of these terrible events. The photos become more and more grisly and nightmare-inducing as Salazar travelled. Throughout the film, we learn why Salazar chose to go where he did, even in light of what was happening around him. The payoff is heart-breaking, terrifying and will no doubt lodge a lump of fear and pain in your throat.
Finally, one of the most successful details of the film (and this film is extremely detailed – making the screening experience soar) was the consultation of another photographer. Why would Salazar continue to shoot photographs of the events in Sangre De Cristo? Savageland provides one of the best, most believable and satisfying reasons for a pseudo-found footage film ever. It had me nodding my head in appreciation. The “excuse” to keep shooting was not necessarily new (a similar reason to keep filming was employed in The Blair Witch Project), but Savageland’s delivery, the deliverer and the deliverer’s history made this “excuse” painfully authentic. Salazarwould have continued to photograph – despite the danger he faced. For once, we buy it completely, and after 15 years of found footage films, that is a feat worthy of praise.
This film shows a date of 2013 on IMDb, and apparently it has been doing well on the festival circuit. No dates are listed for a possible wider release. Just stay focused on your film release map, put on your turn signal when the time comes and take the exit for Savageland. Not a lot of services on this exit, but you can grab a soda, stretch your legs and discover a unique horror film you’ll immediately place in your all-time favorite movie list.