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Friday, June 25, 2021

‘Savageland’: Redefining Found-Footage With an Underseen Horror Gem

From the first epistolary novels to the Found-Footage craze sparked by The Blair Witch Project, storytellers have been playing around with fact and fiction in order to craft engaging narratives for centuries now. Our ongoing fascination with these myths made real has led to classics like Noroi, REC, and even Bloody Disgusting’s own V/H/S films, all presented as genuine records of horrific events. However, in this sea of recovered SD cards and mysterious videotapes, there’s a hidden gem that manages to redefine Found-Footage while also proving that a little ingenuity can go a long way when creating fear on a budget. Naturally, that gem is Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert and David Whelan‘s faux-True-Crime thriller, Savageland.

Those who haven’t heard about the film are in for a treat, as the less you know going in the better. In fact, I’d actually recommend not even reading the rest of this article or looking at the pictures before you’ve seen the entire movie. I’ll try to avoid major spoilers, but this is definitely one of those films that are best enjoyed without any prior knowledge of what’s to come, and I’d rather not ruin any of Savageland‘s wicked surprises.

That being said, if you’re still not convinced that this is a must-watch (or if you need a quick recap before diving in), Savageland is a 2015 mockumentary chronicling the aftermath of a horrific mass murder in the border town of Sangre de Cristo. During the course of a single day, all the town’s residents were brutally slaughtered, leaving behind a trail of indescribable bloodshed. Only an illegal immigrant named Francisco Salazar managed to make it out alive, leading authorities to insist that he was the one responsible for the carnage.

While this sounds like a classic setup for True Crime shenanigans, the film stands out by being a case of Found Footage where the recovered media isn’t “footage” at all, but a series of disturbing still photographs taken by Salazar as he attempted to document the incident. Using these haunting pictures as a guide, Savageland retraces Salazar’s escape from Sangre de Cristo, with audiences soon discovering that the truth can often be far more terrifying than the official story.

In the spirit of genuine True Crime productions, the exact nature of what went down in Sangre de Cristo is never made clear, with the photographs only hinting at a possibly supernatural answer. The movie offers up just enough information so that our minds can fill in the blanks with our own grisly expectations, resulting in a slow-burn horror experience that only works because it suggests these disturbing events instead of outright showing them. Genre-savvy viewers will probably interpret the truth behind the incident as an odd mix of H.P. Lovecraft, 30 Days of Night and a George A. Romero flick, but I applaud the filmmakers for their restraint when building up the creepy atmosphere.

It gets freakier the more you look at it.

I actually had the chance to speak with the directors, who not only provided high-resolution versions of some of the film’s iconic photographs, but also explained that one of their biggest inspirations on the project was Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s True Crime documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Curiously enough, Berlinger would later direct Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, but refused to do it Found-Footage style like its predecessor due to ethical concerns over misleading audiences.

Savageland is proof that Berlinger had a point, as googling the film will often result in suggested search prompts like “Savageland real?” and “Savageland pictures fake?” This urban-legend-like status actually enhances the movie’s scare factor, while also serving as a testament to the filmmaker’s dedication to authenticity. It’s scary to think that so many people can be fooled by a horror film, but Savageland’s refusal to shy away from social issues means that it’s also sparking conversations about real-world problems that require real-world attention, and that makes the trickery okay in my book.

Racism and xenophobia play a huge part in the story, with the social implications becoming just as horrific as the murders themselves. Watching Arizona residents project their own biases onto the Sangre de Cristo incident makes things that much more believable, and characters end up blaming everything from drug cartels to organized hate groups. During filming, the directors even stumbled on real anti-immigration movements that would later rise to notoriety during the Trump era, with some of that footage even making it into the movie.

This commitment to realism is only enhanced by a series of extremely believable performances, with standouts like Noe Montes as the ill-fated Salazar, Lawrence Ross as an exaggerated version of himself and the late, great Len Wein (yes, the co-creator of both Swamp Thing and Wolverine!) as veteran photographer Len Matheson. The casual, matter-of-fact nature of these manufactured interviews and news clips make for an incredibly immersive experience and are part of the reason why the scary bits manage to get under your skin.

Savageland’s scares are even more admirable when you consider the limited resources behind the scenes, with the documentary presentation becoming a way of telling a large-scale story without the need for a studio budget. The directing trio actually insisted on guerilla filmmaking tactics and encouraged improvisation during filming, relying on a basic outline of the film’s events and clever editing instead of a complete script. This down-to-earth approach results in an eerily convincing mockumentary that refuses to spoon-feed viewers with concrete answers.

Much more than your average “talking heads” documentary.

Of course, the real meat of the film is found in Salazar’s terrifying black-and-white photographs. Accusing images of being “cursed” may be a bit too common on the internet these days, but there’s really no better way to describe these sinister pictures. In some ways, the movie feels like a feature-length adaptation of an internet creepypasta, with these otherworldly images predating the now-viral “Found-Footage artwork” of artists like Trevor Henderson.

The directors claim to have taken thousands of photographs in the desert, experimenting with both analogue and digital effects in order to achieve that near-supernatural look, sometimes with unexpected results. Varied exposure times and intentionally bad focus were also used to make sure that these pictures never reveal the true nature of the massacre, only offering brief glimpses into an unexplainable nightmare.

In fact, I’d love to see a return to this gruesome world of monstrous apparitions and terror-induced suicides, perhaps with another mockumentary that continues to expand the lore beyond this first massacre (kind of like how Paradise Lost had its own True Crime follow-ups). The filmmakers also appear to be interested in a possible sequel, though they insist that they’d only revisit the idea with a proper budget and an original approach. That makes sense, as Savageland would be a tough act to follow, standing on its own as a legitimately scary piece of social critique and a perfect example of a slow-burn thriller that could only be told through Found-Footage.

If you really think about it, Found-Footage is an effective form of horror not because it tricks viewers into believing that the footage they’re watching is genuine, but because it suggests that it very well could be, and that tiny seed of doubt is much more terrifying than any boogeyman. That’s why I think Savageland is such an underrated movie, as it proves that brief glimpses into the unknown are all you need to tell a nightmare-inducing story. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if the movie is real or not, as the fear we feel while watching it most certainly is.

The hills have eyes and they’re getting closer.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3668862/editorial-redefining-found-footage-savageland/

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