United Kingdom. 75 minutes. Directed by Lawrence Gough, 2009. Starring Neve McIntosh, Linzey Cocker, Shaun Dooley, Ben Batt.

On Christmas Eve morning, 14-year-old Jodie is reluctantly dropped off at the home of her estranged mother Beth, there to spend the holidays. Tensions between mother and daughter give the visit a bad start that turns worse when an armed special-forces unit kills one of Beth’s neighbors and forces everyone back into their homes. Something terrible is stalking Beth’s quiet neighborhood–something that picks off civilians and soldiers with ease–and despite her rocky relationship with Jodie, she’s not about to let anything stand between her and her daughter.

For the most part, Salvage has all the makings of a fair-to-middling urban siege thriller. The story, it must be said, isn’t anything special, and the backstory isn’t developed coherently enough (at least for my tastes). That being said, the characterization is very strong, which helps define the setting’s sense of community, and a palpable sense of paranoia is maintained throughout (symbolized by one character’s constant speculation that one of the neighbors is a terrorist–of course, the audience knows straight away that the explanation won’t turn out to be anything so mundane).

First-time director Lawrence Gough (who also co-wrote) does a fairly good job behind the camera. While the visual continuity and the editing aren’t all they could be–I had to go back and rewatch a couple of scenes because I couldn’t figure out how certain characters got from point “A” to  point “B,” and I also wish I could get a better sense of how the neighborhood was laid out–Gough keeps the proceedings dark, brutal and tense. The intensity level might not be up to the same level as, say, Aftershock, but Gough doesn’t pull any punches, and he makes it clear that he’s here to terrify, not to amuse.

However, what really elevates the material is Scots actress Neve McIntosh (best known as Doctor Who’s lizard-woman ally Madame Vastra) in the lead role of Beth. She dominates the film from her first appearance, seizing the audience’s attention and refusing to let go. Since Gough separates Beth and Jodie early on and keeps them that way for most of the film’s (very quick) 75 minutes, Salvage turns out to be more about how the two women perceive their relationship than about the relationship itself. Those problems are Beth’s fault, and it’s to McIntosh’s credit that she’s able to reconcile the fiercely maternal and supremely selfish sides of her character. Fierce is the word I keep coming back to when thinking about McIntosh and her character, and it has to be said, Salvage owes more of its intensity to her performance than it does to screenplay or direction.

That isn’t to say that the other performances–particularly Linzey Cocker as Jodie and Shaun Dooley as Beth’s lover Kieran–aren’t worthy, only that they pretty much exist in McIntosh’s shadow.

Overall, despite a few dodgy bits, Salvage is an intense thrill ride that’s sure to please viewers who prefer their horror straight-up and brutal.

SALVAGE poster.

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