The freedom and accessibility of digital video has unleashed a tidal wave of unwatchable horror movies by directors who would have difficulty chronicling a birthday party, let alone a cinematic narrative. This army of camcorder auteurs is seriously giving Ed Wood a run for the money, not to mention making Uwe Boll look like Stanley Fucking Kubrick. But every once in a while, there comes a movie that proves this newfound freedom is worth the trouble. “Salvage”, by the Crook brothers, is just that exception. In fact, it’s more than an exception, and doesn’t need an excuse for its lack of budget or stars. “Salvage” is low budget horror at its best, a throwback to the salad days of regional horror filmmaking, when a Romero in Pittsburgh, or a Herk Harvey in Utah could create a movie that was not easily forgotten.
“Salvage” played the festival circuit in 2005 under its original title, “Gruesome”. Even though the budget was low and the directors lived in New York, the movie was shot quickly in the very wide-open spaces of West Virginia. This was a wise choice. The locations play a large part in the effect the movie produces, and the Crook brothers seem very aware that a little can go a long way when trying to suggest the sinister.
The DVD cover asks, “What if every day you relived your own murder?” The movie tells the story of Claire Parker (Lauren Currie Lewis), a college student who is finishing up the night shift at a 24-hour gas and sip. She waits outside for her boyfriend Jimmy (Cody Darbe) to pick her up, but is startled when she sees his black pick-up truck arrive with another man at the wheel. This man, Duke (Chris Ferry) looks like bad news, but claims he’s friends with Jimmy, and that Jimmy asked him to pick her up since he’s stuck at work. Unable to get Jimmy on the phone, Claire makes the somewhat unlikely decision to get in the truck and go for the ride.
This ride home is incredibly uncomfortable and increasingly threatening, not least of which because Duke looks like an ex-con with a dangerous temper. When they finally pull up to the house, Claire runs away from Duke and locks the door behind her. What happens next is completely terrifying, as Duke appears inside the house and drags her screaming down to the basement. At this point, Claire wakes up, still at her job at the gas and sip, from what appears to have been nothing more than a nightmare.
Now, if this were just a cheap trick, then “Salvage” would be nothing more than another bad horror flick. However, the Crooks have a much bigger trick up their sleeves. This time, Claire waits outside and sees the ominous looking truck pull up, and this time it’s being driven by Jimmy. She hops in and he takes her home and then to school. Everything appears to be normal now. But Duke soon appears again, and Claire finds that she is forced to relive her terrible murder over and over in some kind of endless loop.
To say it’s the horror film version of “Groundhog Day” is a bit too cute and somewhat inaccurate, but it’s a good shorthand description. Just like Bill Murray in that film, Claire has to figure out why she’s reliving this event, and whether or not she’s losing her mind, or perhaps seeing an event about to happen. Unlike “Groundhog Day”, Claire does not relive the same day, just the murder itself. What transpires is a consistently surprising and riveting story with a twist ending that actually makes complete sense within the movie’s reality.
The screenplay for “Salvage” has elements of “Carnival of Souls”, “Jacob’s Ladder”, and “Angel Heart”, but without imitating any of those films. This is an effectively constructed tale with its own original take on the purgatory theme. Its biggest flaw is that it seems at times to be merely a padded short film. This isn’t something you are aware of while watching the film, but is apparent upon the final revelations, when you realize how simple the film actually is, and that clearly the story could be effectively told in the length of your average “Twilight Zone” episode.
But there’s really nothing in the movie that is completely extraneous. In fact, this seems to be the key to making effective movies on a low budget. Instead of failing to fully realize a larger scale story, expanding and building upon a smaller, more minimalist story with stronger performances and achievable effects seems the wiser choice. There are no moments in “Salvage” where I felt the strain of the budget. Every performance and every effect seemed to be just right.
“Salvage” also uses gore effectively. Instead of dumping buckets of ineffectual blood onscreen, the Crook brothers go for a more minimalist approach, using sound effects and simple blood and make-up tricks to create really disturbing moments, including a scene in which a face is peeled off. It’s mostly sound effects and a little blood and latex, but the directors use everything they have at their disposal to make it work.
The care the filmmakers took with their casting should be an example for anyone attempting a low budget feature. On the DVD commentary (which is excellent), the brothers joke about choosing good acting over nudity in their lead role. This was the absolute right choice, since Lauren Currie Lewis is actually a very good actress, and gives an intense performance that goes a long way towards making the film as good as it is. She is also attractive without being the silicone scream queen that usually headlines these movies.
The other characters are just as carefully cast. Chris Ferry is extremely threatening as Duke, whose character is in the tradition of Robert Mitchum in films like “Night of the Hunter” and the original “Cape Fear”. There is something so animalistic in the performance that it is disturbing. This is the character that usually fails in casting, even in bigger budgeted films like “Cold Creek Manor”, which tried to make us believe that Dennis Quaid was actually threatened by the barely 5 foot tall and scrawny Stephen Dorff. Which makes me wonder again why Stephen Dorff is repeatedly cast as tough guy villains. I can’t think of a worse choice this side of Paul Reubens.
Back to “Salvage”. Cody Darbe brings a real sense of comic timing to the role of Claire’s boyfriend Jimmy, which is welcome in such a grim and relentlessly intense story. The rest of the cast is at the very least believable and never less than professional. In other words, I never got the impression that certain roles were cast with the directors’ friends and family.
Joshua and Jeff Crook have been making movies since 2003, and “Salvage” is their fourth production. As opposed to many struggling filmmakers, these guys have had all of their films picked up for distribution. They are very skilled craftsman, and although “Salvage” is their first horror film, it does not show any signs of amateurism. The movie is well paced, delivers on its premise, has a few real shocks and is consistently tense. How long has it been since Hollywood released a horror movie that delivered on its premise? “Salvage” is proof that Dimension Films has no excuse.
Jeff Crook, Josh Crook (director) / Jeff Crook, Josh Crook (screenplay)
CAST: Lauren Currie Lewis … Claire Parker
Cody Darbe … Jimmy
Chris Ferry … Duke Desmond
Maureen Olander … Claire’s Mother
John P. Miller … Detective Miller
Jess DeLong … Jen
Sam Dahler … Sam