Welcome to HorrorFest 2009.

Of all the horror films I saw at Fantastic Fest this year, "Salvage" may have frustrated me the most.

One of the things I love about low-budget horror is the way it forces invention out of necessity.  When you don't have a giant budget, you have to focus on all those pesky little things like "character" and "story" and "good filmmaking."  It's a burden, sure, but all sarcasm aside, it's also where real filmmakers shine.  You can tell when someone's got the goods when they make a movie for nothing and you never once think about the budget as you watch.

Lawrence Gough's got chops.  No doubt about it.  And "Salvage" is a premise that has a huge amount of potential to it.  He's good with actors, he makes the most of limited locations, and he's not afraid to hurt the audience if it feels appropriate.  As a director, I'd say he pretty much does everything he can do with "Salvage," but still, the final film is a mixed bag, and that all comes down to script.  Gough has a co-story credit with Alan Pattinson and Colin O'Donnell, with O'Donnell credited as the screenwriter.  It's a case where the script doesn't quite live up to the premise it sets up, and considering how close they come, it's a damn shame.

Neve McIntosh plays Beth, a divorced mother who is used to disappointing her daughter Jodie (Linzey Cocker), but she can't help herself.  She's promiscuous, unable to live up to even the most basic responsibilities of parenting, and she is filled with self-loathing about it.  On Christmas Eve, she's set to take Jodie for the holiday, but things start on a sour note when she forgets what time Jodie's supposed to arrive and her daughter walks in on her having sex with a stranger.  Jodie runs out on her, and Beth begins a slow-motion emotional collapse that becomes infinitely more complicated thanks to forces beyond her control.

When military forces gun down one of her neighbors right in front of her, Beth realizes that her holiday is much worse than she suspected.  The Army surrounds her entire suburb, forcing everyone indoors as they search for... something.  On the television, reports come in of a shipping container that washed up on a nearby coast and dead bodies found mutilated at the scene.  Are the two things connected?  The ambiguity is one of the things the film struggles to get right, and without the resources to really sell the idea that the neighborhood has been shut off, closed down, and isolated by force, the film has a hard time selling this central conceit.

I like the way Gough uses the architecture of these English houses, all sharing the central attic, all laid out the same, all jammed on top of each other, to inform the way his action unfolds, and there are some strong performances here.  In particular, McIntosh deserves credit for holding the film together at times the script fails her.  Shaun Dooley and Dean Andrews also both do strong supporting work.  Where the film ultimately falls apart is in trying to answer the paranoid questions it poses, and none of the answers offered are interesting or fresh.  By the end, I found myself a bit impatient with the proceedings, and I can see why "Salvage" hasn't been able to find a distributor in the States yet.  More than anything, it serves as an indicator that Gough has raw potential that I hope comes together with "The Drought," his post-apocalyptic horror film that he's gearing up to make at the moment.  He's got the tools... now he just needs the right project to bring it all together.

HorrorFest 2009 runs every day of October 2009.

#0: "What is HorrorFest?"

#1: "[REC] 2"

#2: "Macabre"

#3: "Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark"

#4: "An American Werewolf In London"

#5: "Under The Mountain"

#6: "Doghouse"

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