Javan Garza’s ‘Savage’ and Horror Movies You Need to See in 2023
There is no film genre more welcoming to independent filmmakers than horror. After all, we wouldn't have classics like "Halloween" and "The Blair Witch Project" — two of the most profitable horror movies of all time — without creators willing to strike out on their own and outside of the studio system. For a new generation of filmmakers like director Javan Garza, who just wrapped his second feature film, "Savage," that's not a legacy they take lightly.
Garza spoke with Work + Money about the making of the horror-thriller "Savage," which had its world premiere on Feb. 13, 2023, at The Saenger Theatre in Pensacola, Florida. He gave us a brief film history lesson as well as discussed the movies that inspired "Savage" and his loving admiration for his fellow creators.
What's also apparent is his respect for his longtime collaborator, Dawn Hamil, who has starred in both his films — his first feature "Melany Rose" was released in 2020 — and was a producer on the latest venture.
Here's a look at how "Savage" made its way to the screen as well as insight into some other new horror movies coming out in 2023.
Savage: 'We Can Make It Happen'
"Savage" is Garza and Hamil's second venture into the horror-thriller genre following "Melany Rose" in 2020. "Melany Rose" ran into some bad luck with its release after its premiere in March 2020 was called off because of the pandemic.
It wasn't long after "Melany Rose" was released that Hamil approached Garza asking if he had any ideas for a second feature, and most importantly, she came to him with a plan of action.
"She said she had investors, and she was like, 'We can make it happen if you have a script,'" Garza said. "And I had the bare bones of an idea from a photoshoot with the guy who would end up playing our main villain (in 'Savage'), who is this evil park ranger, and combined that with ideas I had from my dad telling me all these legends and folklore from growing up in south Texas."
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Savage: The Legend of 'El Silbon'
Latin folklore has a rich and terrifying history — the most famous of those legends being "La Llorona," or the tale of the weeping woman who becomes a vengeful ghost after she drowns her own children in a river.
Garza took his inspiration in writing "Savage" from another mythical (and horrifying) figure from the culture with the Venezuelan legend of El Silbon — The Whistler. One main variation of El Silbon's story is that he's the evil spirit of a spoiled son who killed his father and was cursed to carry a bag full of his father's bones for all eternity.
"I started researching it, and the [Silbon] story was just so interesting … it's like this is almost too perfect," Garza said. "So the story came easier from having that structure, and I really threw myself into it. I think we started talking (about the movie) in summer 2020, and I started writing in early 2021. It took about six months to get a draft (of the script) that we were all behind, and we were off and running."
Garza actually documented the making of "Savage," beginning with the writing process, in a YouTube series.
Savage: Principal Photography in Florida in March 2022
With Hamil as the lead for "Savage," additional main cast members were added with Joseph Bishop, Ty Smith, Alexiona Gettis, Clint Mahle and Steven Marlow as the film's villain — listed on IMDb as just "The Ranger" — with principal photography taking place over two weeks in March 2022 in Milton, Florida.
The crew returned for three days of reshoots in August 2022 and one more day of filming in September 2022 for fight scenes. Garza also served as the film's editor — yeoman's work that requires sitting at a computer for eight hours a day and began immediately after the bulk of the movie was filmed in March. Combine that with extensive ADR (automated dialogue replacement) … and that's how he spent most of 2022.
"Right after those first two weeks, I started cobbling together an assembly cut, so when we went back for reshoots it wasn't too hard," Garza said. "So, it was basically editing for almost a year, which is intense, but the audio on ('Savage') is about 95 percent ADR and high-level sound design quality."
Savage: World Premiere at Historic Saenger Theatre
Hamil went to bat for "Savage" to have its world premiere in downtown Pensacola at the historic Saenger Theatre — a 98-year-old, 1,600-seat venue that opened with the premiere of Cecil B. DeMille's silent film "The Ten Commandments," on April 2, 1925.
"I wondered if it was going to be too much or if we should shoot for something like a little, 300-person theater because I was worried we were going to get like 100 people to show up, and it was going to be this really deflating experience."
Around 500 people turned out for the world premiere, which was followed up by a "Savage" panel at Pensacon — Northwest Florida's version of Comic Con — later that month.
"My heart … I just saw all those people, and it was like 'I don't know how to feel on this,'" Garza said. "Then, you kind of go into entertainer mode because I was overwhelmed with this massive turnout because getting press for an indie is not easy."
Savage: When Can We Watch It?
The official description of "Savage" from the film's IMDb page goes like this: "Sky, on a quest to spread her father's ashes, revisits her childhood lodge with her husband and brother, only to be stalked by a dangerous entity disguised as a Park Ranger."
There are ongoing talks with distributors to bring "Savage" to a much bigger audience, but nothing is set in stone. Most of those talks have centered around a fall release on a streaming service — as horror movies are typically released in the fall to capitalize on the lead up to Halloween and the start of the school year, and it's a genre that's proven mostly immune to audience trends. Meaning: Horror always plays.
"Savage" isn't going to be the only new horror movie coming out in 2023, though, as Garza was quick to point out. He picked out eight other horror and sci-fi movies coming out this year that he recommends to anyone who loves the genre.
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Winnie the Pooh: Blood & Honey
Director: Rhys Frake-Waterfield
Starring: Craig David Dowsett, Chris Cordell, Amber Doig-Thorne, Nikolai Leon
Release date: Feb. 15, 2023
Bottom line: All of the "Winnie-the-Pooh" characters were owned by The Walt Disney Company from 1966 through Jan. 1, 2022, when the copyright lapsed and the characters entered the public domain — meaning anyone and everyone who wanted to take a shot at interpreting them could.
Director Rhys Frake-Waterfield took that opportunity to launch as twisted a take as possible on the honey-loving bear and his friends, including human boy Christopher Robin, turning the beloved children's story into a slasher film.
"To me, [public domain] is the ultimate playtime," Garza said. "It's an established IP that people are familiar with, so you end up with a lot of free publicity that comes with that. It's the ultimate creator's dream to take something Disney had and get the freedom to do whatever you want with it. Part of me giggles when I think that this is just going to ruin childhood for a certain group of people."
Director: Chris McKay
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Nicolas Cage, Awkwafina, Ben Schwartz, Adrian Martinez
Release date: April 14, 2023
Bottom line: There is a fine line that a great horror-comedy needs to walk in order to be successful — "Renfield" is trying to fill that void by telling the Dracula story from the viewpoint of R.M. Renfield, his long-suffering servant, as played by Nicholas Hoult.
"You see the previews, and you automatically think of the old Nicolas Cage film 'Vampire's Kiss' because he's in it playing Dracula," said Garza, laughing. "But when you say horror-comedy, one underrated one that comes to mind is 'Tucker and Dale vs. Evil,' and from there, you go to 'Army of Darkness' and 'Return of the Living Dead' … there are some classics in that genre."
Evil Dead Rise
Director: Lee Cronin
Starring: Lily Sullivan, Alyssa Sutherland, Morgan Davies, Gabrielle Echols, Neil Fisher
Release date: April 21, 2023
Bottom line: It's safe to say director Sam Raimi, who created the "Evil Dead" franchise in the early 1980s, is one of the biggest influences on Garza's work — no doubt evidenced by the setting of "Savage" in a remote cabin lodge.
"Evil Dead Rise" is the fifth film in the franchise and the second to have a different director than Raimi, who most recently directed "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" after a nine-year hiatus. "Evil Dead Rise" will be the second feature for Irish director Lee Cronin after "The Hole in the Ground" in 2019.
"What (Raimi) does is so technically interesting," Garza said. "He just broke all the rules when he started out. He didn't want to shoot the traditional way. He's like putting you in the viewpoint of the demon for this visceral experience."
Beau Is Afraid
Director: Ari Aster
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Nathan Lane, Patti LuPone, Parker Posey, Amy Ryan, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Michael Gandolfini, Zoe Lister-Jones, Richard Kind
Release date: April 21, 2023
Bottom line: No director has impacted the horror genre in the last five years like 36-year-old Ari Aster who put out "Hereditary" and "Midsommar" in back-to-back years in 2018 and 2019 and ends a four-year hiatus from cinemas with "Beau Is Afraid," starring Joaquin Phoenix. And here's the thing: No one really knows what the movie is even about.
Aster's influence on the genre is already profound. "I studied the script for 'Hereditary' and some of the techniques he used before I started writing 'Savage,'" Garza said. "He makes it so uncomfortable, you don't really even want to call it horror ... it's more like horror trauma. [Aster] is such an insane visualist, and everything about him is just no-holds-barred.
"The one thing I love about ['Beau is Afraid'] the most is the mystery. I love that. You saw that with 'Spider-Man: No Way Home' when you have the most anticipated movie of the year, and there's no trailer, even, until like a month before it comes out."
The Last Voyage of the Demeter
Director: Andre Ovredal
Starring: Corey Hawkins, Liam Cunningham, Aisling Franciosi, David Dastmalchian, Javier Botet
Release date: Aug. 11, 2023
Bottom line: Some of the steam went out of our excitement for "The Last Voyage of the Demeter" when the original director and star attached to the project, Neil Marshall and Viggo Mortensen, both stepped away.
What's left is still a pretty interesting story that modern audiences haven't seen — it's adapted from a chapter of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" called "The Captain's Log," which details Dracula's travels across the Atlantic Ocean to get to America.
"That was really interesting with Neil Marshall originally attached, but it's still something I'm going to go see," Garza said. "The way the movie was originally described was having been inspired by 'Alien,' which makes sense, with the ship, and that's really kind of speaking my language."
Director: Angel Manuel Soto
Starring: Xolo Mariduena, George Lopez, Adriana Barraza, Raoul Trujillo, Damian Alcazar, Susan Sarandon
Release date: Aug. 18, 2023
Bottom line: "Cobra Kai" breakout star Xolo Mariduena gets his shot at a big-budget superhero film with "Blue Beetle" as the titular hero, Texas teenager Jaime Reyes, in the first comic-book adaptation from a major studio with a Hispanic lead.
That said, the future of "Blue Beetle" is very much up in the air after the DC Comics film, television and gaming division was recently handed over to writer/director James Gunn — "Blue Beetle" was developed and filmed before Gunn took over.
"There were rumors for a long time that there was going to be a Booster Gold and Blue Beetle team up at some point, which sounded amazing," Garza said. "So, if this moves us closer to that, all the better, but I am interested to see the take on ('Blue Beetle') because we just had a movie with 'Wakanda Forever' where they had a Latino lead with Namor, which was great, but that wasn't a character who was traditionally Latino in the comics. With 'Blue Beetle,' that's not the case."
Untitled 'Exorcist' Film
Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Leslie Odom Jr., Ellen Burstyn, Ann Dowd, Jennifer Nettles
Release date: Oct. 13, 2023
Bottom line: Is it a sequel? Is it a reboot? No one is really sure, but we do know the upcoming "Exorcist" film stars Ellen Burstyn in her role from the original movie as embattled mother Chris MacNeil. We also know director David Gordon Green is now officially the king of horror reboots, having made three new films in the "Halloween" franchise in the last five years.
"I really loved the first 'Halloween' movie [that Green] made because it seemed like a real continuation of the original movie," Garza said. "Now, there's sort of diminishing returns when you do that for two more movies, but you really do have to give him the benefit of the doubt with 'The Exorcist' because we've seen sequels to the original really work before.
"What is a totally underrated movie, in my opinion, is 'The Exorcist III' ... I really think it's a genius work and is directed by William Peter Blatty, who wrote the original novel and adapted the film from the book he wrote as a sequel to the original 'Exorcist.' [The film] has some dream sequences I have really studied and incorporated into things I've done."
Dune: Part Two
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Timothee Chalamet, Zendaya, Austin Butler, Florence Pugh, Dave Bautista, Stellan Skarsgard, Josh Brolin, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Charlotte Rampling, Javier Bardem, Christopher Walken, Tim Blake Nelson
Release date: Nov. 3, 2023
Bottom line: Any real sci-fi film geek probably has director Denis Villeneuve's "Dune: Part Two" at the top of their list for movies to see in 2023, regardless of genre.
"Dune: Part One" was released direct to HBO Max and in theaters in October 2020 without the promise of a sequel. It managed to make over $400 million at the box office and was also nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won six.
"Part Two" brings in Oscar nominee Austin Butler as the villain Feyd Rautha — played by musician Sting in the 1984 version of the film — along with Florence Pugh as Princess Irulan. "The first film was a real triumph," Garza said. "The best way to describe is that it's outside the mainstream. It's a slow-burn blockbuster, which is really unheard of. For fans of the book, to even get close to a real adaptation of the book and the filmmaker to get to take his time with it is a nice change of pace from how things are usually done."
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