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I like movies that are generally very visual, with lots of strong music, and with top-notch art direction. I also have had various experiences with digitally shot fares, ranging from the great "Scarlet Diva" to the mediocre direct-to-video stuff that has started to flood your local video stores everywhere. Those mini-budget flicks always fall into 2 camps: they are eiher shot and edited using a documentary style, or they try hard, and often fail, to mimic the conventional film look and feel through post-processing. It was with a lot of apprehension then that i went to see "Savage Island" given that it is a micro-budget (yeah, they exist) horror movie shot on digital video, in about 13 days!!!
"Savage Island" tells the story of a young couple, Steven Harris and Julia Young-Harris, and their baby boy, who go visit Julia's parents, Keith and Beth, and brother Peter, on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest. Keith just bought the island and seeks to develop it into a high-class resort. The problem is that the island is inhabited by squatters, the Savage family, headed by the charismatic patriarch Eliah, who have lived there for several decades. On the night Steven and Julia arrive on the island, Peter picks them up to drive them back to the family house. They accidentally hit something on the road, but continue on, unaware they ran over Jimmy, the young boy of the Savage family. The following day, Pa and Ma Savage come to the Young's house and lay claims to the young baby boy as compensation for the death of their child. Suffice it to say that things don't go too well from there on and that in this ultimate confrontation, most on both sides lose their lives. Throughout the movie, strong themes are explored such as the traditional family unit, the unstoppable march of progress at the detriment of local populations, the rivalry between technology and nature, and the simple fact that it is all too easy for 2 groups to hate one another and wage war on one another, instead of communicating.
As i have said in my introduction, i am biased from the get go against low-budget digital fares. There is simply a look and feel that i don't like much. However, there are several things here that sets this film apart.
First, the story. It may sound fairly common, and it actually is. You cannot help but remember "Deliverance" and "The Hills Have Eyes", a cult classic Wes Craven horror film of the 70's. However, the writing more than compensates for it by creating strong characters and pulling several surprises throughout. I believe that the common story drives your expectations for standard twists and turns to be used, but instead, there are a few genuine surprises there which, in several occasions, have driven the story in quite a different direction than i would have expected. I could only spot one plot hole, a fairly big one in my opinion, but i believe it happens so late in the story, and by then, your emotions are pretty shaken up by what you have seen, that it doesn't really matter in the end. Overall, it is a "mild" horror film (very little gore), but with strong undertones of a psychological thriller. The situations are horrific, but the characters and their development are very psychological.
Second is the cast and their performances. It's an ensemble cast of 11 fully fleshed out characters. And even though i found the acting uneven, it is far better than anything i would have expected for that budget. It's actually quite nice to see this type of film with a decent overall performance from everybody. In particular, Winston Rekert, who plays the smart and charismatic Savage patriarch Eliah, is magnificent. His voice, expressions, and overall body language is something i can still visualize over a month after i last saw this movie. Lindsay Jameson creates a perfectly creepy inbred matriarch as Mary. Finally, Kristina Copeland is very cute, and at times, renders to perfection the pathologically anxious Julia.
Third, the cinematography and editing were actually quite surprising. This is the first time i see a digital movie which doesn't wholly fit in the 2 categories i outlined earlier. It definitely has a digital look, but throughout, you can tell that the director and cinematographer have had a lot of fun pulling some tricks. In particular, you get treated to various nature shots that are simply quite beautiful. They also have used different camera types, to create scenes with distinct looks. The editing was also quite dynamic, and several scenes are simply so well put together. To me, the editing is the technical jewel in this movie.
On other fronts, although it does feel very micro-budget, the island develops quite a strong presence in the movie. The locations, the outfits of the locals, all look really good. I particularly liked the Savage home. The music also manages to pull interesting moods. At times, i was reminded of John Corigliano's style and regretted that those passages were not more emphasized, and that the music overall did not take a more center stage. Sound-wise, you have what you get with this type of budget. It's OK, but could have been much more interesting, given the location and situations, if more money had been available. I particularly regretted the lack of Surround Sound which i think is particularly important in modern movies, especially in the horror genre.
Overall, "Savage Island" was a surprising movie for me because it had almost everything going against it: very low budget, fairly common story, and shot on digital video. However, the writing, ensemble performances, and some interesting technical aspects, managed to create several surprises that made this an enjoyable viewing.
Finally, this is a first for Discobole.ComŽ, we have an interview with the co-writer, editor, producer and director Jeffery Lando. You can get it here. You can also get more details about the movie itself at the official Web site.
- Laurent Hasson