The Cold War era produced an explosion of post-apocalyptic horror films. Think George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man (1971), and many others. National paranoia fuels great horror films. It’s not surprising then that a similar trend followed the September 11th attacks with its subsequent “War on Terror”, heightened xenophobia, and prevalent anxieties of future terrorist attacks in the minds of the American people. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield (2008), Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005), and even American “torture porn” films like James Wan’s Saw (2004) and Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) can fit into this category, questioning what it means to live in a post-9/11 world. And more pertinent to this review, what do we fear in the wake of this mass tragedy?
Chris Pickle’s 2010 film Saving Grace falls into this tradition of filmmaking. The film tells the story of Grace (Mandy Bo) who is a young nurse and a perpetually recovering/relapsing heroin addict. Confronted by immense hopelessness after her daughter is taken away by authorities and her employment is threatened, Grace winds up in the hospital after a nearly fatal overdose. However, when Grace begins to become conscious of her surroundings after the overdose, she realizes that she is no longer in the hospital. Instead, she wakes up in the make-shift bunker of a janitor, Clayton (Jason Barbeck), who works at the hospital in which she was being treated. Clayton appears to be a deeply paranoid survivalist. However, the story that he tells Grace when she wakes up is not one merely of paranoia. Instead, Clayton claims to have saved Grace not only from her drug addiction, but from some kind of world-wide apocalypse which has left all unprotected citizens outside of his small bunker dead. And like with most claustrophobic, post-apocalyptic horror films, the real danger is not always the deadly destruction outside, be it nuclear war, zombies, or disease. The real danger lies within those around you who will do anything to survive, even if that means the death of those around them.
Saving Grace has problems. Most frustratingly is that the film’s script is simultaneously its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Chris Pickle is not short of any ideas. His concept is enrapturing, tense, and ambiguous in the best sense of the word. Throughout the film, we are never fully sure of Clayton’s sanity, of whether there is actually danger outside, and if the claustrophobic bunker is in fact Grace’s salvation. Or perhaps, the bunker is Grace’s own hell, personalized by the insane janitor. If anyone has seen Dan Trachtenberg’s critically acclaimed 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) you will sense familiar plot points. My aim in mentioning 10 Cloverfield Lane is not to compare the two, but to show that a similar story with a $15 million budget and acclaimed actors can be wildly successful among audiences and critics. What the 2010 Saving Grace lacks is characters that we can consistently root for, love, and get behind. Post-apocalyptic films like Saving Grace should locate those survival instincts in its audience members and exploit them to the fullest by intertwining the audience and the protagonist. I never fully felt that connection in Pickles’ film.
That being said, Saving Grace should not be missed. Its plot is perpetually interesting and engrossing, and its conclusion will leave you stunned. And while it may not succeed entirely on a character level, it is nail-bitingly tense, claustrophobic, and a 82 minute thrill ride.
Review: Alex Schultz