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Savage Island

2003, Starring Winston Rekert, Don S. Davis, Steven Man, Kristina Copeland, Brendan Beiser, Beverley Breuer, Gregg Scott, Zoran Vukelic, Nahanni Arntzen, Lindsay Jameson, Kyle Sawyer. Directed by Jeffery Lando.

Once the tax incentives that led to the proliferation of genre films let out their last gasp at the end of the 1980s, Canadian b-films all but disappeared. An increasingly crowded straight-to-video market convinced most filmmakers to hand the reins to American directors looking for cheap Canuck locations. But as our film industry entered the 21st century, something very curious happened critically maligned genre films made a huge comeback. Presently, new franchises of varying quality like Ginger Snaps, Cube and Decoys have reached audiences in and outside of Canada like few tax shelter films had the opportunity to. With all this rekindled interest in the darker side of Canadian film, it was really only a matter of time before the strange phenomenon of Canadian "rural revenge" films were brought back to life, too.

Last House on the Left, Straw Dogs and Deliverance were the inspiration for a handful of 1970s and 80s tax shelter films shot in Canadian backwoods locations. Although not strictly "horror" movies, rural revenge films about average people forced to defend themselves against moonshine-crazed crackers usually contained enough terror and torture to be considered a cinematic cuzzin. With strong scenes of violence, Paul Lynch's 1985 film Bullies was the last slab of Canadian hillbilly hijinks worth tracking down, at least until now. Shot in Vancouver, Jeffrey Lando's new film Savage Island is a fine addition to the Canadian rural revenge subgenre, combining solid performances and an intriguing story in this exceptional independent outing.

With their baby Alex in tow, Julia (Kristina Copeland) and Steven Harris (Steven Man) make their way towards Savage Island, a heavily wooded isle owned by Julia's parents Beth (Beverley Breuer) and Keith (Don S. Davis). While waiting for her brother Peter (Brendan Beiser) to ferry them across the river, Julia and Steven meet Lenny (Zoran Vukelic) and Joe (Gregg Scott), two members of the Savage familywhite trash squatters who refuse to give up their claim on the island.

Despite being neighbours, the Savages don't bother with Julia's parents much, unless they have a strong reason toolike for instance, the death of one of their kin. After arriving safely on the island, Peter drives Julia and Steven back to the house, accidentally running over little Jimmy Savage along the way. Peter assumes it's just roadkill, but when he returns to the scene of the crime the next morning, he discovers a freshly dug grave. Meanwhile, Savage patriarch Eli (Winston Rekert) confronts Beth and Keith, and demands that they hand over Julia's their daughter's son Alex as retribution. When they refuse, the Savages take drastic measures, kidnapping and torturing Peter. When they finally manage to lure Julia and Alex back to their dirty cabin, mild-mannered Steven starts to formulate a plan for revenge.

Savage Island makes for startlingly compelling viewing. Despite having a plot similar to many other rural revenge films, it offers a refreshing twist on the genre, and belies its obviously low-budget. This is a character-driven story, but by employing a dark atmosphere where literally anything could happen, there are enough outbursts of violence to keep the audience completely engaged. Although most of these scenes rely on tricky editing as opposed to gore, Savage Island can be just as brutal as its Canadian predecessors. When the Savages attack, the film slips into high gear, pushing all the right buttons to provide a genuine pace-quickening experience. More importantly though, Savage Island has enough sense to liberally space the shocks between more lighthearted domestic scenes to maximize their impact.

And it's these moments of family bliss that really set Savage Island apart. When Julia is kidnapped, the viewer gets to see how the Savages act as a slightly skewed family unit. The presenting of the human side of the hayseed antagonists is something that rarely popped up in earlier Canadian rural revenge films, which were usually content to focus on the breakdown of those that were forced to stand up for themselves. At one point, Mary even teaches Julia how to hold her baby properly. The Savages also seem to have a legitimate stake in the landit is called "Savage" Island, after allas well as a justifiable reason to go after Peter. It might be a misguided backwoods justice that the Savages represent, but it's justice all the same.

While the film gives a good look at the Savages as they are, my only real regret is that little history and context is provided for them. In the DVD commentary, the director and screenwriter talk about how they developed a whole back story of violence and incest for the Savages, as well as their specific claim to the island. It's just too bad we don't get much of that in the film.

Savage Island is one of the best films I've ever seen that was shot on digital video. The "clean" look of DV is generally far too bright for horror films, but Savage Island employs a generous layer of graininess to take the distracting sheen off. Also, because the audio has been re-dubbed and re-inserted in post-production, the film overcomes the poor sound quality that plagues most DV movies. Sync isn't perfect, but that helps to instill a low-budget drive-in quality that works here just as it did in Lee Demarbre's Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter.

And like Demarbre's Ottawa cult classic, Savage Island stands up with some of the best new b-films coming out of Canada. Top it all off with a nice "shock" ending, above-the-board performances by almost everyone involved, and Savage Island becomes an easy recommendationa solid Canadian horror film which draws upon one of our strongest traditions.

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