"Salvage" had its premiere two years ago at the Cinema One Originals Film Festival 2015. This was a special screening only and not part of the competition that year, so probably not too many people got to see it. To be honest, I did not know about this film until now that it is finally having its commercial run during this first Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino. I heard positive reviews on how strange a film it was. Luckily I was able to catch it on PPP's final day.
A group of TV reporters were in the village of San Vicente near Cagayan de Oro City, investigating a series of murders that locals are attributing to an "aswang" monster. The crew consisted of five people: Bong (the on-cam reporter), Melay (the segment director), Neil (the cameraman), Barbie (the makeup artist) and Manny (the driver).
While looking for a certain Ka Ernie in Sitio Papaya, their multicab made a wrong term that led them off the main road into a remote area in the jungle. Suddenly there was a military checkpoint that looms into view manned by soldiers who wanted them to alight from their vehicle. Once they did, without any warning, the five team members were plunged into a vivid living nightmare from which their very survival was unsure.
From the start, we get the vibe that the camera recording the events of this film was being carried by the cameraman Neil. We see the camera focusing and defocusing, white balancing, trying out various filters. Then we would be subjected to a usually shaky camera, with the picture pixelating and colors desaturating a lot, while the person holding the camera is walking, running, hiding. When the camera falls to the floor, the frame is sideways or even upside-down. This very unstable camerawork by Malay Javier can be vertiginous to those vulnerable to motion sickness.
The visual attack of this film is frenetic. Perhaps I had not seen enough Filipino horror films, but I could call this the most bizarre film I had ever watched on the big screen. I like Pinoy horror movies and I've seen a number of them, but nothing had images as disturbing as those in this film. All the darkness, movement and camera glitches made ordinary things look scarier than they really were. Just goes to show what an overactive imagination could make you see. The jeep getaway scene, the neck slitting scene, the giant snake scene, the fallen angel scene were all very memorably unsettling. The editing of this film by Lawrence Ang had been cited by the Young Critics Circle that year, and that was clearly deserved.
Then there is the amazing sound. This film is an achievement in sound effects mixing. There is very little dialogue in this film. For the most part, the sense of urgency and excitement is carried by the cacophony of sounds that pervade the soundtrack. People would be moaning, gasping, panting, yelling, screaming. Nature sounds also abound, like shrubbery shaking, insects chirping, bats, birds and beasts calling, hale falling, thunder rumbling. Add to that mix, bells and ringtones to further enhance the eerie tone.
The ensemble acting by Jessy Mendiola (as Melay), JC de Vera (as Neil), Joel Saracho (as Bong), Karl Medina (as Manny) and Barbie Capacio (as Barbie). I had never seen Jessy Mendiola in such an intense role and performance. Barbie Capacio could be very annoying at first, but during those endless chase scene, it was his distinctly shrill shrieking that created an atmosphere of more suspense. It was these two characters who were onscreen the longest, as the male characters fell in and out of the action for longer stretches of time.
Sherad Anthony Sanchez had won awards in international film fests for films like "Ang Huling Balyan ng Buhi'" (2006) and "Imburnal" (2008). This is the first film by Sanchez that I had seen and I found it audacious and stimulating. But this type of indie-style raw, bizarre horror may not exactly be for viewers who expect clean, logical, mainstream-style horror. I am not sure if all his disturbing imagery actually represent anything in reality. Why were soldiers the bad guys here? Who were those two creepy boys who kept pointing out where Melay and crew are hiding? Who were those little girls in their Santacruzan finest at the torture arena?
This type of found-footage horror had been done many times before in foreign films since "The Blair Witch Project" (1999) made it a horror trend for years that followed. This is the only local found-footage horror film that I remember seeing. There were scenes where you do not know who was holding the camera. There were parts of the film where it can feel like it was going nowhere. All the bewilderment and confusion is clearly part of Sanchez's main point. "Salvage" is not only a simple horror movie. It is in fact a visually and aurally perplexing experience of the otherworldly and bizarre. 8/10
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."