Legions of filmmakers working today would love to make a feature horror piece rife with political relevance, originality, poignancy, and, to top it off, something that is actually scary. Luckily for we viewers, Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert, and David Whelan managed to do just that. Welcome to Savageland, a place you’ve probably been before if you followed the 2016 US Presidential election (or really if you spend any time watching the news these days).
The story is told to us documentary-style, as if we were just settling in to watch one of those “True Crime” segments we all seem to adore so much. We have talking-head experts and locals, along with friends and family members of the victims helping to unpack the story. I found these characters to be especially impressive; their appearance and dialogue both felt very realistic and authentic. It wasn’t hard for me to get carried away during some of these moments and forget this is a work of fiction.
The film takes place in Sangre de Cristo, a tiny town near the Mexican border where all residents, save one, were brutally murdered over the course of a single night. This is the stuff of nightmares. With horrific dismemberments, bite marks, blood, and bodies marred beyond recognition. The village’s sole survivor, Francisco Salazar, comes shambling out of the carnage only to end up being arrested for the crimes. But how could one man carry out this massacre in such a short span of time? It’s impossible. Though, apparently not according to the racist court of public opinion. Francisco is a Mexican man in the states illegally, living and working in the town. He’s an easy target for those ready to punish a Hispanic person for this travesty. Salazar is a day laborer without many strong ties to the community, single, and an introvert, who is more comfortable behind his SLR camera lens than in the spotlight. We see snippets of a traumatized and broken Francisco via a jail-house interview. He’s shell-shocked and in no condition to defend himself, muttering the chilling words, “They’re still out there. At least they can’t get me in here.”
The mistrustful Caucasians in the surrounding area begin to suspect Latinos en masse. Ethnic tensions in the area have been building and it seems the white folks have been waiting for an excuse just like this to show the world they’ve been justified in thinking that Mexicans are just too culturally brutal and suspicious to be allowed in to the US with the rest of “us.” When something truly evil and alarming happens, people have turned on each other instead of digging for the truth. They simply allow their panic and prejudices rule their actions in the place of justice.
Since Savageland is a faux-documentary, there wasn't a lot of room for splashy creative choices when it came to cinematography but in this case, I’m glad for it. Sticking to that narrative formula helped to make the movie even more believable. I was especially impressed with the use of analogue black and white photographs, which play a crucial role in the plot. Wise editing choices helped stamp out a good pace for the story. Scenes were concise but suspenseful, and never wore out their welcome. Everything kept ramping up at a nice tempo. For a self-described “micro-budget” film, I was prepared to be forgiving of potentially poor sound and camera quality. I was pleasantly surprised that this was not the case.
I clearly loved this film and I cannot sing its praises enough. The filmmakers used expert pacing and control to bring us a horror movie that is topical, smart, chilling, and sadly, all too real.