Savageland: Found Footage Horror Gets Sickeningly Political

I’ve been on a bit of a found footage kick lately.

I know some of you out there really can’t stand the genre, due either to its conventionally low production values or its tendency to induce motion sickness faster than not-quite-up-to-code teacup ride at a sketchy carnival, but I’m a huge sucker for any film made with a handheld camera and roughly six dollars. They can be fun and tongue-in-cheek, like Troll Hunter, jump-scare adrenaline-fests like Host, or creepy, quirky sideshow mysteries in the vein of something like the Creep films. That is to say, they have just as much potential and variety as any other subgenre under the horror umbrella does, only at a fraction of the cost and with (in my opinion) a lot more creativity and ingenuity than conventional studio films.

But I think my favorite style of found footage is the mockumentary. There’s just something about the framework of the documentary that elevates a film’s subject matter to much more effective heights than the more typical linear structure of a traditional narrative. With a standard found footage film, despite the added layer of authenticity created by the POV format, it’s still a film with a standard three-act structure. You can still disassociate, chalk it up to being nothing more than a movie if it begins to frighten you. But the documentary style takes it a layer deeper, presenting fictional events in an academic fashion, which makes them much more realistic, and often, much more terrifying as a result.

Recently, I stumbled onto a little gem of a film titled Savageland. Released in 2015, the film seems to have flown relatively under the radar, ultimately being relegated to free streaming site Tubi, which is effectively the internet’s DVD bargain bin. But make no mistake: There’s nothing cheap or lowbrow about this film. It’s perhaps one of the most intelligent and politically savvy horror films I’ve ever seen, found-footage or otherwise. And its absolutely haunting.

Made on the upswing of the true crime genre, Savageland is presented as exactly that: A cable TV Making a Murderer-style documentary focused on the crimes of an illegal Mexican immigrant photographer and day-laborer named Francisco Salazar. Salazar was the only survivor of a bloody night of violence and terror that left the entire population of fictional Arizona border town Sangre De Cristo dead, mutilated and ravaged beyond all recognition. Salazar is promptly found and arrested by Arizona authorities, who blame him for the atrocities committed on that fateful night. While initially near-catatonic, Salazar slowly begins to unravel a horrifying tale of what occurred that night, leading investigators, reporters, and the people of Arizona to question the authenticity of his story.

The film takes a unique and incredibly effective approach to its horror elements by wisely leaving them entirely in the background. Salazar’s story, accented by the single roll of film he was able to use the night of the massacre, are only the backdrop to the wider political debate that inevitably emerges in its wake. We’re presented multiple viewpoints from various ‘experts,’ ranging from the police officers who responded to the killings, to right-wing, Alex Jones-esque shock pundits, to the hyper-liberal black true crime author who believes the entire incident is an elaborate cover-up to hide a targeted extermination by the local government. Each argument, presented via a series of interviews in typical documentary fashion, is juxtaposed by the eye-witness testimony from Salazar himself, conducted by a criminal psychologist as he awaits trial for the accused crimes. Accompanying his story are the photographs that he took, which paint the tale in a decidedly supernatural light.

We the audience are made well aware of the truth in Salazar’s story right from the very beginning, with a local border patrol agent taking us through the night in question step by step, using the photographs as landmarks to track Salazar’s progress. The agent casts doubt on the official prosecution’s version of events, as well as those presented by the other talking heads in the documentary. Salazar’s photographs are also verified by a professional photographer (played in a fun, random cameo by Wolverine creator Len Wein), in stark contrast with the police and media’s dismissal of the pictures as nothing more than macabre photoshops.

Yet the tension and the suspense come not from these gruesome images themselves (which are chilling in their own right), but from the state of Arizona’s stark refusal to acknowledge them. The (white) people of Arizona would rather believe that a single immigrant man murdered 57 men, women, and children in a single evening than accept even the possibility that he is telling the truth. The politics of race and identity are the real villains, the monsters that prey on the innocent and the helpless. Salazar’s story is steeped in a profound sense of hopelessness and injustice that feels all too familiar in today’s political and social climate, even seven years after the film was released. If anything, four years Trump’s ‘Build the Wall’ rhetoric only serves to worsen the feelings of dread that a rational viewer will get from this film if they have even a casual understanding of current events.

This is a film that will leave you scared, yes, but more than that, feeling a complete and utter frustration at a situation which is really only a slightly exaggerated account of some very real and incredibly unjust news stories from the past decade or so. The filmmakers here deliver a more compelling representation of the inherent prejudice and mistrust experienced by migrants in the southwest through the lens of a fictional horror narrative than many others have with actual events. I left this film feeling sick to my stomach, not from the graphic imagery and the harrowing tale of survival that Salazar experienced in-universe, but from the echoes of reality that the film represented.

If you’re a liberal political junkie and want a film that really hits home, then Savageland does the trick superbly (Maybe avoid it if you’re more conservative-leaning; Your viewpoints are demonized a fair amount here). But do note, much like far too many real-life criminal cases, this story does not have a happy ending. If the realities presented here ring true on a personal level, be prepared for some profound emotional heaviness.

You can find Savageland for free right now on Tubi (with ads). Its also available to rent from Amazon Prime. I highly recommend you check it out.

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