Sunday, 21 June 2009

Salvage - Edinburgh International Film Festival review

As someone who grew up watching Hammer horror and who regretted that new British horror films were few and far between at the time, I never thought I’d find myself responding to a film like Salvage in a “what, another one?” kind of way.

Put it down to over-familiarity with the form, a sense of having seen it all long before, and done better.

Or, to itemise, if you’ve seen some or most of The Birds, Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies, Shivers, 28 Days Later, [Rec] and Diary of the Dead, you’ll find nothing new here.

We begin with a scene of suggested violence as a paperboy encounters something in the trees behind an ordinary suburban house. Santa and snowman decorations outside most of the houses on his route – significantly excluding the one the paperboy visited just before being offed; the one belonging to the brown skinned family – establish the season.

Following this we get a slice of social realist drama as a dad takes his reluctant teenage daughter, Jodie, to spend Christmas with her mother, during which they happen to catch a part of a radio broadcast about a metal container having been washed up on a nearby beach. It’s hardly the most subtle piece of information planting, but is at least generically conventional if we think of the likes of Night of the Living Dead’s returning space probe and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s reports of grave-robbing.

After being deposited Jodie accidentally catches her mother, Beth, having sex with a man and, already not being in the best of moods, responds predictably by running over to a neighbour’s house. Mum follows and attempts, without success, to explain things to her daughter.

Just when you start to wonder what is happening horror-wise – although the mise en scene is already suitably edgy, with good use being made of the widescreen space – all hell breaks loose as a group of soldiers in black combat gear appear, shoot the aforementioned brown-skinned neighbour, Mr Sharma, after he advances on them with a knife, and force everyone else back indoors at gunpoint.

A bit of social comment is then inserted as Beth’s one-night stand, Kieran, speculates that Mr Sharma must have been a terrorist, despite her remarking, in a more reasoned fashion, that he is a Hindu (i.e. the darker skinned non-terrorist, as unofficial ‘swarthology’ discourse might have it) rather than a Muslim (i.e. the darker skinned potential terrorist).

Not, however, that Beth is a perfect model of calm responses in other ways as, with all communications suspiciously closed off, she desperately tries to contact her daughter in the house opposite...

The problem I had with Salvage at this point was it really had nowhere left to go. It doesn’t get more intense but rather just continues at the same would-be fever pitch for the next hour or so, continuing to rely on the same well-worn techniques – the sudden noise, the sudden cut, the sudden appearance in the frame etc. It also has a monster which, when eventually revealed, is not that impressive, nor terribly convincingly explained away.

As ‘bad’ mother Beth Neve McIntosh is suitable frenetic, with the fact that the breakdown of her marriage was not due to alcoholism, drugs or infidelity – each of which the opening moments seems to invite us to presume – but that she put her legal career first, a nice subversion of expectation. But, at the same time, the strong female / weak male reversal of pre-feminist horror film has arguably become a new cliché in these post-feminist times.

Likewise, if the Muslim = Arab = terrorist equation has become a cliché in Hollywood productions, a more politically correct counter-treatment has become just as much of a norm in low-budgeted, somewhat more engaged British productions. They are, one suspects, fearful of offending the liberal establishment and its sensibilities.

Whereas, for example, neo-Nazi David Copeland’s bombing campaign in Soho inspired 2001’s Gas Attack, we’re still waiting for a similar treatment of Finsbury Park Mosque and the July 7 bombings.

Two real horrors thus emerge. First, British horror directors are playing it too safe at present. Second, anything they do that is grounded in reality – i.e. a 28 Days Later or Salvage rather than a Dog Soldiers – cannot match up to the horror of the reality we are actually in.

“It’s only a movie,” indeed...

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