While the found footage subgenre has been done to death and then some, its close cousin in the mockumentary hasn’t had the same amount of overexposure. It’s kind of surprising, given the latter genre has been around much longer than found footage. Then again, found footage films also tend to be easier to come up with for budding horror directors. Savageland, written and directed by newcomers Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert and David Whelan, does take the mockumentary route, but also injects a bit of social commentary into it that seems more relevant now than when the film was screened at festivals back in 2015.
Francisco Salazar (Noe Montes) is an illegal immigrant laborer and amateur photographer. He’s also the lone survivor and accused in a mass murder spree in 2011 in Sangre de Cristo (derisively nicknamed “Savageland”), a small town near the Arizona-Mexico border. In spite of the lack of evidence pointing to his guilt, anti-immigrant prejudice and the desire to find a scapegoat win out. On Salazar’s appeal with a set of photos taken that night, however, the truth involving unspeakable horror comes to light.
Savageland the documentary focuses on the events that happened that night in Sangre de Cristo, with the resulting trial, conviction, appeal, and aftermath. Spliced in are the usual talking head interviews, photographs, and news footage, all of which come together very well. The film is a slow burn (even at just over 80 minutes), but in doing so it captures that disturbed feeling that slowly comes over you that one might get from documentaries on real-life serial killers/crimes. Hearing the interviews with Salazar’s relatives and the relatives of the victims, you definitely get a sick feeling seeing and hearing the emotions on both sides battling it out over this tragedy. That, and the haunting photos of the tragedy (presented in black and white with shaky exposure), it’s not something you want to see at night. Bottom line, as a faux-documentary, Savageland‘s overall presentation is extremely effective, smartly edited, and feels as authentic as you can get.
A big part of that disturbed feeling in Savageland comes in the form of the social commentary woven into the film regarding immigration. The film pulls it off without being clumsy or in-your-face about the whole thing. Keep in mind that this film was made long before current talk of a wall along the US-Mexico border became a hot topic. Even then, the film puts in what can be seen as representatives of that talk in Sheriff Parano (played by George Lionel Savage) and radio talk show host Gus Greer (Edward L. Green). Parano and Greer express many of the views and attitudes that are in line with those now in the White House (and their supporters) with regards to immigration, and the “whipping up” of emotions whenever something terrible occurs. And like other good social commentaries, the film eventually shows the dangers of this type of thinking towards illegal immigrants, as well as the unintended consequences as a result.
As good as Savageland is at pulling out the necessary emotions and drawing the viewer in, there are a few things that threaten to take one out of the experience. While the acting by everyone involved was quite good, there are some, such as Lawrence Ross (who is an actual writer and author), who put more emphasis on being “dramatic” in their deliveries rather than having an actual conversation. The ending also felt out of place, doing a complete 180 to the rest of the film in tone that felt like it was thrown in for a jump scare moment. It doesn’t ruin what Savageland had built up its entire runtime, but at the same time, the film tripped over the finish line after a near-perfect run.
When one of the interviewees says that they sleep with a gun after viewing the photographs shown in the film, that dread is the same dread you’ll feel after watching Savageland. Wonderfully executed, with great editing and overall exellent acting, Savageland not only works as a great mockumentary, but also nails the social commentary that makes it all the more real and frightening. A definite recommendation for fans of the genre, and for those who like films that hit close to home in their message.
Savageland is now available on VOD.