'Savageland' & The Horror of Photo Manipulation
One of the more welcome side-effects of the internet giving everyone a voice, has been its sharp rise in quality art. Not only are the creatively inclined encouraged to share their work with their friends/followers, but strangers too (to mixed results of course, but this isn’t about that). Freelance illustrators and artists make livings off of websites like Etsy or at convention centres. There’s so much good out there too that it’s daunting to scroll through at times, but it means there’s something for everyone to spend their income on and help small creators/businesses in the process.
The majority of pieces I’ve bought over the years have been, well, horror pieces. Either inspired by or depicting typically strange and disturbing scenes or creatures that would stalk you in the night or watch you from afar. There’s a huge demographic for this kind of stuff. Artists like Trevor Henderson (also known as SlimySwampGhost on social media) started by illustrating warped creatures and additions to existing photographs sent his way. This resulted in a dichotomy between the horror of the fantastic and the stark reality of the photograph that creates an unnerving, lasting dread that’s often more impactful than the majority of horror cinema. And Trevor’s far from the only one to do it, he’s just a great example due to how prolific his presence is online; his transition into full illustration has shown his development as an artist after being nurtured by the fans of his previous work too, with his original character ‘SirenHead’ becoming an often-copied creation among the horror community.
It harkens back to what the internet does best, and how it lends a suggestive hand in the creation of ‘cryptids’ and a new crop of horror urban legends. Like the creation of Slender Man on the Something Awful forums back in 2009, where Eric Knudsen won a small competition by inserting the character in the background of a playground photograph.
But why are images like this so haunting? There are a number of factors. The most likely is that they aren’t, and examples such as Slender Man are just isolated, rare occurrences of such creations achieving mainstream success. Another is that it connotes a primal fear of typically fictional creatures and happenings being forced into the real world via substantial evidence. This theory depends on the quality of the manipulations themselves, especially now as photos can be warped and played with on devices that everyone owns. With this in mind, let’s quickly take a look at some of the lengths these texts have gone to in order to grasp verisimilitude.
For Slender Man, many were introduced via the Marble Hornets series on Youtube. A found footage/mock documentary series following a young man recording strange goings on in the aftermath of a falling out with the cast and crew of a student film. Created by Joseph DeLage and Troy Wagner, the series utilised the growing format and popularity of viral anonymous video during a time period that leant itself to the unknown. It’s a series that, even just a few years later, wouldn’t have had the same impact on kids scrolling through playlists online terrified that these strange creatures were actually out there. The video accompaniment has several clichés of its own. Typically the tapes (let’s call them tapes) tend to have a VHS quality to them, with little-to-no sound and 90% of them will be ‘naturalistic’ e.g. nothing will be happening, apart from one or two oddities that the tape will then be known for. This used to be a way of building atmosphere and believability, but in a time where Youtube dictates what videos are pushed to audiences depending on sponsors, length and brand appeal, the time of unknown tapes achieving the audiences they need to survive are long gone.
Luckily there are still websites like Reddit that allow for such experimentation. The whole notion of Creepypastas have continued this independent horror story mentality and nurture it across subreddits such as r/letsnotmeet and r/nosleep. Because of the lack of interference from executives or commercial appeal, many of these stories and images end up resonating more than most. Examples like Dathan Auerbach’s Footsteps were expanded upon in his debut self-published novel Penpal to chilling effect whereas Sony Pictures’ Slender Man feature film provided the final nail in the coffin for the creation creatively.
For a feature film to successfully transport this uneasy dread from an internet forum to the big screen would require finesse and a delicate hand. The verisimilitude of the documentary format shows the most promise. Films like The Blair Witch Project and other found-footage horrors are probably the most successful. Specifically, ones that play with intertextuality. The dynamic between the original Blair Witch, its viral online marketing campaign (new at the time) and even physical ad campaign (missing posters for the characters within the film, a faux dossier of the experiment published as a book at the same time) extended its terror into the real world. Subsequent films such as The Last Exorcism and REC have all featured elements of this but none have attempted to ground it using techniques like photomanipulation.
Savageland, released in 2016, was written and directed by Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert and David Whelan. It’s a faux crime documentary following the aftermath of a town-wide massacre on the border between America and Mexico where dozens were killed and one man was deemed responsible. Amateur photographer Francisco Salazar (Noe Montes) sits on death row for the slaughter after being found caked in blood. But his developed photos of the events that took place bring into question the entire case.
By sticking to the true crime documentary rulebook, Savageland nails the sense of reality by offering up a detailed and sub textually rich mystery. Framed amidst various b-roll footage of the aftermath within Sango De Christo and interviews with officers, professionals and those connected with the case, it looks and sounds the part for its entirety.
“Usually when someone is playing with film you can tell. With these pictures there’s none of that.”
The photos taken by Salazar are harrowing, disturbing snapshots of an invasion of some kind. Humanoid creatures, stretched to imperfection and imbued with a wonderful sense of movement and panic in black and white, are seen ripping residents to shreds and chasing Salazar down to the point where crime scene investigators are able to put a narrative together that match Salazar’s own confessions. Of course, under the guise of a real documentary opposing forces are brought into play, and it all hinges on the fact that such photos are easy to fake.
The photographs themselves aren’t particularly shot well, but much like their online counterparts that only accentuates the chilling effect they have. Silhouettes caked in white from the flash of a camera are blurred in motion. Eyes pierce through darkness. Residents are caught mid-scream in fear. Savageland works so well because it doesn’t centre its entire narrative only these pieces of evidence. It keeps them sparse. Salazar was only able to get a handful of shots during the ordeal, so they’re truncated pieces of evidence within a very real serial killer case.
Other films have used the technique to a similar effect (2012’s The Bay for example) but Savageland feels like a forgotten gem that fell victim to its own quality. An independent production, its adherence to realism doesn’t illuminate its connection to the horror genre until halfway through. Up until that point it remains an engrossing crime documentary through and through. The social commentary, painting Salazar as an illegal immigrant in order to persuade a public backlash against his trial, is deftly handled too. The mixture of real thematic consequence and supernatural threat blur into one, with many interview subjects blatantly ignoring the obvious demonic/zombie goings on and just reverting back to their racist ranting.
Much like horror itself, Savageland (and as a by product the whole horror of photo manipulation) operates on a ‘less is more’ basis. Whilst it lacks the pristine presentation of a studio production, this allows it to maintain its integrity in the face of opposition. Horror imagery is enjoying a renaissance thanks to the talented artists online who take inspiration from such films as Savageland and the ‘otherworldly’ horror of Asian cinema. The work of Junji Ito and films like Pulse present ghosts and spirits in forms that we’re not able to visually understand in the same way films like Annihilation present extra-terrestrial life as an ethereal force rather than a carbon-based lifeform. Masked serial killers aren’t in fashion anymore. We now want more of that weird shit. That shit that perplexes us and renovates an entire space in our mind as we ponder over what we’ve seen.
Just always remember to keep rolling no matter what. And keep in mind independent horror is still the best place to find such exciting and new ideas, and it needs your help to survive. Support what you can, purchasing or renting films and TV shows over torrenting them. So now you know, and knowing is half the battle.
Savageland is now available on DVD and Digital.
Trevor Henderson's Work: https://trevorhenderson.format.com/
This Friday, the first ever Show Face Festival begins for its four-day run. Over 50 pieces of work from emerging creatives including myself. Writers/Directors/Actors/Producers/Designers/Artists/Editors and many more have all come together in order to produce four days of brand new entertainment for you. And the best part is? IT'S FREE!
Just head over to http://www.showfacefestival.co.uk to book your place and you'll be sent links for the pieces as they play out across the festival. There's going to be some great work, and it's a chance for the next generation of creatives to get their name out there in a way that's supported by none other than Dame Judi Dench herself!
The Show Face Festival - 28th-31st August. Be there! Please! Oh please be there!
And now back to our regularly-scheduled world piece.
We're all familiar with the state the world we live in is in. But just because we casually drop apocalyptic jokes into the pool every now and then doesn't mean we know the facts. Just taking 10 minutes a day to keep up to date can arm you in conversation and help strengthen the flow of information. Educating more people could potentially make a difference in an election, then the next thing you know an idiot ISN'T running the most powerful country on the planet...
For example the fires ravaging across California in a harrowing repeat of what happened at the beginning of the year in Australia. The threat to democracy that's happening in Belarus which has lead to thousands forming protest marches against their president.
What about the continued importance of the #BlackLivesMatter movement across the globe? It's still going strong despite limited media interest now. And the murderous officers behind Breonna Taylor (and dozens others') deaths still haven't been punished. The recent shooting of Trayford Pellerin in Louisiana just days ago shows how this isn't over whilst also highlighting the stigma surrounding mental health in the public eye.
Here in the UK we're not any better. Politicians are spreading wide their opinion on what's best for school kids during a still-ongoing pandemic with COVID-19. The same kids who they failed with their A Level results to the point where it had to be reversed, just late enough to allow all the preppy students at Eton to continue their class-lead superiority. Nevermind the fact that waves of intelligent and hardworking students were denied anything above a C grade not because of their work, but because of their postcode and school choice. That's beyond fucked. We're a country who, even today, is proving to be just as corrupt and inhuman as any other. For example NHS managers THIS MORNING have revealed they were ordered to administer 'Do Not Resuscitate' orders on adult patients with autism, learning disabilities, and those in care homes, during the pandemic crisis. To actively promote the prevention of saving lives is intrinsically sick.
I'm sorry to always bombard with bad news at the end of these weekly posts but if we ignore what's going on around us we're allowing it to continue. Ignorance is bliss, but challenging things makes them stop.
Aside from Googling things, the carrd link I usually post has stopped being updated regularly so I'm trying out a new one. On it are hundreds of resources to charities and pieces of information on a whole load of news stories currently going on in the world. Spend 10 minutes. It's just 10 minutes.
Aside from that here is a link that allows you to help and donate to various causes (you can choose) by just watching adverts. So disable that AdBlocker and put your time to good use.
Stay Safe Everyone.
Thank you for reading, have a wonderful day.
See you next week.
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