Horror as a genre, by its very nature, is one of extremes and excesses. Endemic violence, gratuitous nudity, and blanket coverage of the darkest recesses of the human soul are all well catered for and widely available. It is also a genre of amazingly diverse tastes and appeal; so many are united under the banner of horror fandom but, from individual to individual, what pleases some may appal, baffle or downright enrage others. Debate is healthy and it is a wonder that as a community, often coming from polar opposite perspectives, we are able to bond, debate, and generally rub along together at all with such divergent views. Each fan has their own line in the sand in terms of content too, themes and subjects they would rather avoid. There are those, like the paedophilic snuff stylings of Srdjan Spasojevic’s ‘A Serbian Film’, or the hipster-baiting talent vacuum that is Bill Zebub, that unite most of us, but beyond those select few, our individual tastes come into play. For this reviewer it the rape-revenge sub-genre; whilst it is an absolute right of adults to select what they choose to watch, and also understanding many interesting and more knowledgeable writers’ views on the feminism in these films, the concept is repellent in a way that I find hard to watch. There have been many hugely important films in this category, Wes Craven’s ‘The Last House on The Left’, Peckinpah’s ‘Straw Dogs’ and more, but I choose to actively avoid those movies; genre films should be fun and, for me, this sub-genre is not. ‘Savaged’, unconfirmed for UK release as yet, is the debut genre feature from writer and director Michael S. Ojeda and is loosely marketed as a rape-revenge movie and, as such, I almost dismissed it completely. What a mistake that would have been.
Zoe, a deaf mute girl on a cross-country trip in her dad’s old muscle car, takes an unfortunate detour and runs foul a local gang of rednecks. Abducted at the side of the road, raped, stabbed and dumped in the desert, she is found by a Native American shaman and taken to a nearby reservation. Trying to save her life he conducts a ceremony to bring her soul back to her body but, when she regains consciousness, it becomes clear that she is not alone. Joined in spirit by legendary Apache chief Red Sleeves, Zoe is resurrected and the two set about gaining revenge on the gang who attacked her.
‘Savaged’ is a curious beast. Marketed as a rape-revenge movie, it actually has much more in common with a slasher movie, although there are features of possession movies and hillbilly horror thrown in for good measure too. For a plot juggling such diverse elements, Ojeda’s script it surprisingly good. Admittedly, it does begin with the extended abuse of an innocent girl which, whilst emotionally difficult to watch, is thankfully not graphically portrayed. There is brief lull during the initial scenes with the shaman but then the film really takes off, stringing together a series of scenes that are in turn emotionally affecting and strikingly violent. The characters arguably correspond to expected archetypes although there is commendable effort made to distinguish the usual array of redneck scumbags from one another; the concept of Zoe’s impairments are also sensitively handled and, although it is not given the space to be explored fully, it gives rise to one of the film’s most heart-breaking moments. All are perfectly placed for this kind of movie although the character of Native American shaman, Grey Wolf, is almost insultingly stereotypical. Narratively, ‘Savaged’ shares much with Proyas’ legendary ‘The Crow’ but whilst this gives the film a vaguely familiar air, it holds its own unexpectedly well when the two are compared.
Ojeda’s script is brought to life by a very talented cast who all put in solid work. The absolute standout here is lead actress Amanda Adrienne, who gives a frankly excellent performance as deaf mute Zoe. On one hand she is a sympathetic and fragile presence, whose portrayal of a woman both emotionally and physically broken is very impressive; on the other, she is totally convincing as a violent and intimidating supernatural killer. Her performance is largely silent too which means that the majority of the characterisation she is given is physical; for someone who is so slight and willowy as Zoe, she is wiry and menacing as Red Sleeves – no mean feat for any performer, but as one making the transition into feature films, this is a real statement of intent and, I believe, the beginnings of a promising career. In Rodney Rowland, as her chief tormentor Trey, she has the perfect foil. Bearing a quite striking resemblance to ‘The Walking Dead’ stalwart Norman Reedus, he perfectly captures the racist misogyny nature of his character, making Trey easily one of the most detestable characters of the year so far; his scene with Marc Anthony Samuel, as Zoe’s boyfriend Dane, in which he narrates their abuse of her cements a character very much deserving of the sharp end of Red Sleeve’s tomahawk. Chief henchman West is played with aplomb, by Tom Ardavany, who is watchable and engaging, part Danny Trejo, part Sonny Landham’s Billy, and a showdown with Zoe on the back of a moving truck is one of the film’s many highlights.
‘Savaged’ marks Ojeda’s first foray in feature films too, coming from a background of television documentaries, and he makes a promising debut. He is clearly someone who understands the genre in which he is working and ‘Savaged’ is a well-constructed and well-paced piece. Each sequence is competently shot and edited together – something else for which Ojeda takes responsibility here – and in a movie in which the majority of events take place over one night, scenes are atmospherically yet clearly lit. He shows most promise in his understanding of on-screen violence however. During the movie’s early scenes, in which Zoe is horrifically abused, he adeptly uses cutaways and quick edits in conjunction with extended middle distance shots to convey the horror; the audience is left with the impression of seeing more than is actually there and, whilst difficult to watch, the violence is more of the implied and emotional variety than graphic or gratuitous. When things kick into high gear however, he is equally in control of some very graphic and grisly body horror segments and gleefully bloody set piece kills; ‘Savaged’ is entertainingly gruesome, especially when Red Sleeves comes into play.
Evidently made on a rather meagre budget, ‘Savaged’ is nevertheless packed with visual effects. There is some truly excellent make-up and practical effects on show, especially as Zoe’s body begins to deteriorate; liberally sprinkled throughout are some fun, if disgusting, moments of body horror and the injury and wound detail is top notch for such a small production. There is also liberal use of computer generated imagery throughout too and it is here that the small production budget is most apparent, with some fake looking blood splatter and extended sequences of carnage on a larger scale. That said, wonky though they are, these sequences are great fun; the fight between Zoe and West on the back of a truck is hugely entertaining even if the effects are poor, as is a scene where Red Sleeves tackles a speeding car. It is testament to just how much enjoyment there is here that, for once, low quality computer graphics aren’t laughable or distracting.
It is easy to dismiss ‘Savaged’ as yet another depressing rape-revenge grind. It could equally be dismissed as a low budget slasher movie from a certain perspective too. Both of those decisions would be unwise however, as it is a great little movie. Taking disparate elements and trying to combine them into one cohesive whole is no mean feat but one achieved by Ojeda here, and he should be applauded for managing to assemble something both familiar but gleefully creative. Stellar performances from Amanda Adrienne, bringing real pathos and threat, and Rodney Rowland, repellent and sadistic, further add to a movie that massively exceeds expectations. Rounded out by some great, or at least great fun, special effects, and ‘Savaged’ really is something special. It does exactly what a top genre movie should; give you a bloody good time and leave you with the impression of time well spent. Highly recommended.
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(No UK release, screened at FrightFest Glasgow this year).
Categories: 00's horror