Savageland Movie Review
Written by Jeff Tolbert
Released by Terror Films
Written and directed By Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert, and David Whelan
2015, 80 minutes, Not Rated
Released on VOD on February 24th, 2017
Noé Montes as Francisco Salazar
Monica Davis as Monica
Edward L. Green as Gus Greer
Patrick Pedraza as Diego
VaLynn Rain as Grace
David Saucedo as David Castillo
George Lionel Savage as Sheriff Parano
Found footage/POV/mockumentary films get a lot of hate. I can understand why: comparatively easy and inexpensive to make, POV films often seem to give filmmakers an excuse to churn out cheap garbage to make a quick buck. (I know nothing about film production, I should point out; that’s just the impression such films often leave me with.) There are also the inevitable comparisons to The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity, which, depending on how one feels about those films, either set an impossibly high standard or make any new film look good by comparison.
Fortunately Savageland avoids most of the pitfalls associated with the greats of the found-footage subgenre—not by doing anything especially innovative or challenging, but by perfectly matching the conventions of real-world true crime and paranormal documentaries. In this it has much in common with Ghostwatch and the Blair Witch companion, Curse of the Blair Witch, both of which presented themselves as serious investigations into paranormal events. (It also uses the Curse of the Blair Witch font, or very close to it, for its title cards, which I like to think was deliberate.) If you like the procedural elements of investigative documentaries on basic cable, you’ll like Savageland.
The film opens with a TV news anchor recounting the bizarre massacre of every inhabitant of the tiny Arizona border town, Sangre de Cristo. One survivor, Francisco Salazar, is found covered in blood amidst the wreckage of human bodies, and is immediately suspected, summarily arrested and convicted of the mass murder of over 20 people. The film, like many real-world documentaries, presents various talking heads as they weigh in with evidence for Salazar’s guilt or innocence. We meet the local sheriff, who naturally insists on Salazar’s guilt; a true-crime writer who says Salazar was innocent, framed by a legal system out to get minorities; and a cast of locals from the next town over, family members of victims, even Salazar’s own sister. We also learn that on the night of the killings, Salazar had a camera, and shot a full roll of film. Much of the movie comes down to the content of the film and what it might say not only about Salazar’s actions that night, but about something much more horrible than a lone killer.
What’s good about the film is its sober tone, slow pace, and convincing use of the TV-documentary style. The scares come not from loud noises or things jumping out at you, but from the ongoing investigations of the photographs, which reveal increasingly disturbing images of ghoulish figures emerging from the shadows of the desert. The monstrous events in the town are set against a backdrop of poverty and racism, xenophobia and desperation, timely matters for anyone living in the US or with even the vaguest awareness of what’s happening here. There’s also an intelligent and frank discussion of class disparity and racism that plays perfectly into the plot: Salazar was using a film camera, and none of his supposed victims had smart phones with which to film their attackers, because here on the border nobody can afford them.
What’s less good is the acting, hammy in places, and the writing, which veers to the melodramatic (perhaps appropriately, for the genre the film is mimicking). There’s really nothing new here at all, and, as I find myself saying again and again, while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there’s also nothing really sterling to make up for the familiar tropes.
In the end, Savageland is a solid, enjoyable entry in the found footage sub-genre, one which proves that there’s life in the old girl yet, and which revitalizes (ho ho!) a tired monster by refusing to show us too much of it.
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