Something inarguably evil happened in the tiny town of Sangre de Cristo, Arizona, on June 2, 2011: all but 1 of its 57 residents were massacred, but just who or what did it is up for debate. The arresting horror film Savageland (2016) takes an effective, chilling faux-documentary-style approach in recreating the events of that fateful evening.
Savageland looks and feels like a real documentary. Co-writers and co-directors Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert, and David Whelan have done a marvelous job with this conceit, and with only a couple of small exceptions, the cast makes their characters feel like real people, not actors playing roles. As a matter of fact, in a couple of cases, real people using their actual names play themselves, providing a further air of authenticity to the proceedings. This is one of the most believable faux documentaries that I have seen, and that makes the horror element all the more effective. This is not a mockumentary, because nothing is being mocked or played for comedy, and it is not a found footage film, though there are found photographs — more on that a bit later in this review — and one very brief found footage scene from a recovered broken camera.
The film opens with scenes of the bloody aftermath in “SDC,” as the county locals call the town, and the introductions of many of the key players in the story. Of the town’s residents, only some bodies and body parts were found, but many were never recovered. Many bloody trails led into the desert.
The main characters include Francisco Salazar (Noe Montes), an undocumented immigrant worker who was the only official suspect in the killings; Hinzman County Sheriff John Parano (George Savage) and radio talk show host Gus Greer (Edward L. Green), who both believe that Salazar was guilty and won’t entertain any alternative theories; Lawrence Ross (as himself), author and investigative journalist, who doesn’t buy into the official story; and Carlos Olivares (J.C. Carlos), a retired border patrol officer who walks the film crew through what he thinks happened that night. Several other more minor characters add a strong sense of believability and pathos, including a professional photographer, Salazar’s sister, and relatives of the victims.
Most residents of the county seem to unquestioningly accept Salazar’s guilt because, to them, he symbolizes what is wrong in their area and they consider him just another illegal immigrant who caused trouble after crossing the border from Mexico into the United States. Those who knew Salazar personally, however, paint a picture of a milder mannered man who was known to be an avid photographer.
A roll of 33 eerie, unsettling photographs comes into play, allegedly taken by Salazar on the night of the attacks. Parano refuses to allow the photographs to be considered evidence in Salazar’s trial, and Salazar’s lawyer says he would get disbarred if he tried to enter them as such. Ross and Olivares both believe that the photos are important proof that the official story is a cover-up.
Savageland builds its growing tension and sense of dread through solid storytelling and the hair-raising photographs. The movie’s use of these photos harkens back to the classic scare-fare method of suggesting something disturbing to the audience and letting our minds do the dirty work. Devoid of action scenes, the film is nevertheless riveting and engrossing, and is an exceptional example of how horror moviemaking can be done on a low budget — and additionally without an abundance of gore or special effects — and still turn out something original and of high quality.
The film also has a political bent to it, with social commentary on the United States/Mexico border debates. Both sides of the issues are represented. Those who like some current events to chew on with their horror will find much to discuss here, but those who are less interested in that needn’t be worried that the messages are too heavy handed. In Savageland, Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert, and David Whelan have done an admirable job of crafting a complex, frightening tale that also offers food for thought.
Savageland: (4 / 5)
The film is set for a wide ancillary release in 2016 by Terror Films. http://www.terrorfilms.net