The brilliance of “Savageland” lies in its ability to deliver relevant scares, while examining the dangers of our tribalistic tendencies.
Although released in 2015, Savageland has never been more significant than it is right now.
The most important horror film of the decade, “Savageland” helps us make the stark realization that we still make monsters of those whom we do not understand.
It seems extraordinary to us now that in centuries past, literally hundreds of thousands of people were executed on charges of witchcraft and werewolfism. But the truth is that witch hunts and werewolf trials are an unfortunate stain on the human experience. The accused victims in these cases were nearly always the most vulnerable: the elderly, mentally ill, disabled, or those living just outside of town, practicing any unconventional method of medicine or spirituality not ordained by the church.
SAVAGELAND is a master work in the horror experience. A joint effort, directed and written by Phil Guidry, David Whelan and Simon Herbert, the film manages to bring this type of hysteria to life in the modern world, showing how our fear of the unfamiliar can send us into a frenzy of false accusations and paranoia. Expertly crafted in the “faux documentary” style, the story is told through a series of news reports, crime scene photos and convincing interviews.
It’s one of those rare films that blends social commentary and absolute horror so well that you find yourself pondering its deeper message long after the credits stop rolling.
The film tells of the 57 residents of a small, obscure border town in Arizona who are brutally massacred overnight, leaving only one survivor. Unfortunately, the only survivor also seems to be the easiest scapegoat, as he is an illegal immigrant living on the outskirts of town, named Fransisco Salazar. Salazar has a reputation of being a quiet loner who dabbles in photography. He is immediately labeled the only suspect and apprehended by authorities in the early hours of the morning.
We as the viewers are treated to steady doses of information, weaving a horrific tale of the unexplained events that took place that fateful night. Allegedly, Salazar tells police that he was home alone, when he was alerted to events taking place near by. He grabbed his camera, made his way into town and started taking photos. And here is where the suggestion of absolute terror and all its unsettling implications truly creep in.
The alleged photos taken by Salazar show us something truly sinister. They are nothing short of chilling, yet still enigmatic enough to allow our imaginations to fill in the blanks. The images, expertly tailored to invoke a sense of horror beyond comprehension, serve as a visual record of what Salazar saw as he made his way across the town.
Though the gruesome events were documented by him in all their grisly detail, many people — including an opinionated and infuriating sheriff, who serves as the film’s modern “Witchfinder General” — believe the photos to be an elaborate hoax.
The film is engaging throughout, with steady pacing, and well-shot scenes that all serve to move the story in the intended direction.
The performances are eerily convincing, and the whole execution is so well thought out that it’s hard to believe what you are watching isn’t real.
Cleverly turning the “witch hunt” idea upside down, we are confronted with a series of events that need explaining. The photos seem to, remarkably enough, back up the traumatized Salazar’s story. But monsters and the supernatural no longer being a mainstream idea, the photos are ignored, and the only available person to blame is Salazar himself.
Because monsters don’t exist. Right?
Apparently, in this case, it was easier for most people to believe that one person — a quiet, unassuming man — was single-handedly responsible for the slaughter of 57 people. Without anyone stopping him, or alerting police. Without cause. Without a firearm, or any form of weapon really. The only weapon Salazar carried was his camera, and he used it. But in the end, even visual proof of his innocence could not save him from humanity’s need to put the blame on someone close, tangible, and easy to dispose of.
Intelligent horror can seem hard to come by these days — especially with all the hidden gems that receive little to no marketing or distribution, ending up lost among the streaming archives of unoriginal and campy travesties. SAVAGELAND is is one of those rare finds and shines as an achievement not only in horror, but also in conveying a relevant message to the times. And it does so without being overstated or obnoxious about it, allowing us as viewers to draw our own conclusions.
The message, however, does not get lost in translation either. Through the film’s realistic tone, we are face to face with our own prejudices, our own ignorance, and perhaps our own biases too.
We live in a time ripe with fear and anxieties. This leads to anger, which only festers over time like an open wound. The wound becomes infected, and filled with hatred. We become quick to draw conclusions about who is to blame for what, and how to fix everything. When we are confronted with unsettling truths that may not fall in line with our personal utopian ideals, we become violent and lash out, not wanting to believe the evidence right before our eyes. We don’t like feeling threatened, and we don’t like to be wrong.
What SAVAGELAND manages to do so well is be a lesson in humanity as well as horror. A rare gem and, in my opinion, one of the very best in this extremely tricky sub genre, it is a horrific tragedy told through a realistic medium, and anchored by superb performances. It’s eerie, genuinely scary, and it left me a little speechless — which is pretty hard to do.
But what really left me with goosebumps was the thought that in all these hundreds of years of witch hunts, werewolf trials, and other such autocratic scare tactics, humans still see monsters where there is only man — allowing our pre-conceived notions to forever bind us in ignorance.