Saturday, 15 November 2014

Savage Spirit

Director: Cory Turner
Writers: Cory Turner, Connie Biskamp
Producers: Cory Turner, Connie Biskamp et al
Cast: Shantel Vansanten, Russell Reynolds, Jacqueline Bergner
Country: USA
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: screener DVD

I love this job. Well, I say job. I don’t make any money from this website, you know, but I get paid for writing for magazines and it’s all part of the same thing. Mag work leads to material on the site and stuff I find for the site sometimes leads to mag work, so it’s all part of one sort of gestalt job. Anyway, the reason I love this job - writing about movies - is that every once in a while I come across an absolute gem that no-one, or hardly anyone, has seen yet. I can feel good about helping to promote and publicise a quality movie, and I can feel smug for having seen it before any of youse bastards, ha.

Sorry, got a bit carried away there towards the end.

My point (and I do have one) is that, knowing nothing at all about this film except that it was 82 minutes long and therefore wouldn’t require me to stay up too late, I slipped it into the DVD player to have a watch. And it very rapidly became apparent that Savage Spirit is a very, very good horror film indeed. It’s unusual because it is both gory and spooky. There are spookier films than Savage Spirit, and there are gorier films. But it is rare indeed to find a spooky film this gory and even rarer to find a gory film this spooky.

After a prologue about two sisters, we jump forward a month to four young couples having a pool party in the same house. One of the couples bought it - and the entire contents - from the previous owner, desperate to sell. Could it be because this house is the famous ‘house on Bayou Court’ which is reputed to be haunted - or is that house actually in another town?

Well, it’s here of course (The Ghost of Bayou Court was the working title) and the meat of the movie is the eight beautiful young people being despatched one by one. However, the killer here is no masked loony but a pitiful, grey ghost armed with a large axe. One by one, the silent, calm ghoul despatches the men and women in a variety of interesting, but not silly, ways: barbecue, electric lead, garage door.

At first, the octet seem somewhat interchangeable - four buff guys and four hot chicks - but over time, individual characters emerge, as well as the synergies of the four different couples. Crucially, every one of the characters is sympathetic. There are no bubble-headed bimbos or leering jocks, no stereotypes at all; some may be more moral than others, some may be happier, but these come across as eight reasonably intelligent, unreasonably attractive folk.

This distinction of roles (although I did find it difficult to assign names to all the characters) is to the credit of the actors. The performances throughout - and there are others, as we shall see - are consistently good. In fact, they are much better than one would normally find in a low-budget, shot-on-video indie such as this. Stand-out among them is probably Shantel Vansanten, who plays a bikini-clad pricktease named Lori. Her flirting scenes with ‘nice guy’ Brady, with their respective other halves asleep and presumed left, are magnificently acted and are undoubtedly the non-horror highlights of the film.

Director Cory Turner fully understands that audiences aren’t interested in characters who exist merely as axe-fodder. We need to get to know these people and understand them; they don’t have to be perfect, they don’t even have to be good, but they have to be interesting and they have to be human. We must sympathise with their lives if we are to empathise with them as they die.

And die they do. Each death occurs out of sight of the others (and, we must assume, out of earshot; this requires a suspension of disbelief which I am entirely satisfied in providing, given the overall quality of both script and film). Because of this, the first two or three victims are assumed to have just gone home early in a huff or simply wandered off. The spectral killer fades into being (or is seen by us where a moment earlier she was not) and strikes with lethal, supernatural strength. When the victim is suitably incapacitated, she raises her axe to strike and - as the blade descends - killer, victim and any bloodstains simply fade from existence.

Turner’s skill lies in showing us just enough of the killer. At first we see only a fleeting glimpse of a grey, mummified hand or a handful of frames of something hideous. From the prologue on, throughout the film, more and better views of the ghost are gradually revealed to us but Turner is never tempted to indulge in a full-on, full-length shock shot. Plus, and I think this is vital to the success of the threat, this ghost is silent. Other directors might be tempted to have her cackle or even spout wisecracks, but that would be lame and simply dilute the horror of her presence and her actions. (Adding to the spookiness is a scene where one of the characters attempts to drive away from the house, only to find that he can't. This may be an homage to The Exterminating Angel...)

Intercut with this A-story, and admittedly not quite so effective, is the tale of a psychic (Jacqueline Bergner) and her husband. She has visions of the dead people from the party and must find where the killings are happening in order to stop them. The DVD sleeve copy plays her up as the main character but she is very much the B-story. What keeps us on the edge of our seats is wondering who will be next to die, and how.

The special effects by ‘Evil’ John Mays are simply excellent, treading that fine line along the border between realism and sensation. Assisted by great performances of pain and terror from the cast, the prosthetic make-up and the fake blood are suitably shocking and horrific, never looking prosthetic or fake. Turner did his own photography and, for a shot-on-video film, made an impressive job of it. Clever framing combined with sharp editing makes the ghost’s intermittent presence genuinely chilling. The biggest technical let-down, as so often on low-budget pictures, is the sound, but I think that can be forgiven when balanced against the way-above average direction, script, acting and effects.

I enjoyed Savage Spirit enormously, as you can probably tell. Then, just when you think you have a handle on the film, we are unexpectedly thrust into a sepia-tinted flashback to the ghost’s origin one hundred years earlier. Turner himself has a role in these scenes.

The rather convoluted credits seem to expand according to some sort of mathematical formula. Turner directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Connie Biskamp (who plays the ghost, under make-up by fellow cast member Krista Riley) from a story by the two of them plus Jared Briscoe (who plays a neighbour) and Angie Turner. And the four of them produced the film along with Drew Waters (who plays the psychic’s husband) and William Biskamp (also in the sepia flashback).

Also in the cast are Lucy Bannister (A Texas Tale of Terror), Patricia Campbell (The Tunnel) and Christie Courville (sideFX). Many of the cast and crew worked on Turner’s first film, They Feed, which, based on the trailer included here, looks like Tremors in a forest - which can’t be bad. In a moment of self-indulgence which we will allow, the characters in this film watch a scary movie at one point, which is presumably They Feed (which I now definitely want to watch for myself).

It’s not often that a movie grabs me, excites me and - I’ll admit it - scares me like Savage Spirit did. It’s not perfect, but most of the limitations are technical ones and overall it is far, far better than a low-budget film about young people in swimming costumes being chased with an axe has any right to be.

MJS rating: A-

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