Don't tell anyone, but there was a time when I couldn't miss Brookside. Maybe it was simply the fact that Anna Friel was something of a hottie, but I got addicted to life in the Liverpool suburb. Brookie was something none of the other soaps were at the time. Unafraid of controversy, constantly attempting to push the boundaries of what was acceptable storyline material and prepared to tackle harsh issues with a degree of maturity as yet uncommon in the genre, the show in its prime was groundbreaking TV. Then it lost the plot. Other soaps caught up. Brookie decided the way forwards was to become more sensational and embarked on a series of ill advised and increasingly OTT scenarios that removed The Close from reality and placed it in tabloid hell. Viewers moved away in droves and the street famously became "Brookside Closed".

So it's comfortingly familiar to see The Close again, almost unchanged, in Lawrence Gough's feature debut Salvage. The houses, bushes, even the furnishings, fill the viewer with nostalgia. You know this street. It feels right and real, as if these are the people who moved in after Jimmy Corkhill was defiantly evicted. It's this reassuring regularity that helps give way to grave unease as things start to go horribly, horribly, wrong.

With Christmas approaching, Jodie (Linzie Cocker) travels to The Wirral to spend the holiday with her estranged mother Beth (Neve McIntosh) following her parents' divorce. The reunion doesn't go according to plan and Jodie storms out in frustrated anger. Beth follows to make amends, but short tempers exacerbate the situation. It's not the best start to the day, and things really don't get any better. Within minutes, the street is swarming with Special Forces soldiers, Beth has witnessed the bloody death of a neighbour and everyone is confined to their houses at gunpoint. Trapped alone with Kieran (Shaun Dooley), the reactionary one-night-stand who caused the initial argument, Beth can only guess at what's happening. Phone lines are cut by the soldiers, and a news report describes a mysterious shipping container washed up on a nearby beach before all power to the street is shut off.

It's a tense setup. The viewer becomes as isolated as the characters, almost sharing the curfew with Beth and Kieran. It's a good thing that both Neve McIntosh and Shaun Dooley give such outstanding performances, as for the most part this film is a two-header set in a very confined series of locations. The panic, concerns and motivations of these people are realistic and well observed. Their flaws, prejudices and desperation make them all the more human and easy to identify with. As Keiran's knee-jerk opinions start friction with Beth's more measured viewpoint, pressure builds within the small house. The fact that these places still look almost exactly as they did on Brookside only adds to the atmosphere; these are places you recognise, where people you know about had lived. This familiarity turns the screw. This could be where you are, or happening to your family and friends. It's a clever trick, design to break you from your comfort zone and make you check through the curtains to make sure there are no heavily armed, black-clad, soldiers sweeping through your neighbourhood.

It's also a trick that works well. The first hour of Salvage is enormously tense and keeps the viewer as much in the dark as the characters. Fleeting glimpses through windows and distant sounds give hints at what might be occurring outside. It's as these noises and sights encroach upon Beth's house that the fate of the neighbourhood becomes more sinister. A blood splattered sledgehammer falls from the attic into Beth's house. A neighbour screams at the door, leaving a bloody handprint. A visit next door reveals only death and destruction. It's a nightmarish scenario filled with subtle build up and effective jolts. The writing and direction of the initial sixty-or-so minutes are assured and essential, developing a horrific and mysterious situation while drawing authentic characters. The plot feels driven by their desperation and their actions, for the most part, are genuine and understandable. Despite only featuring two main characters, pretty much housebound, the film gathers an enthralling pace as it speeds towards a revelation and resolution.

And then it stumbles. Salvage reveals its hand, and it's not the royal flush you were hoping for. After the majority of the film has been so effective and felt so original in many ways, the payoff feels sadly familiar. The movie almost grinds to a halt for a low-key scene of exposition that gives a sense of disappointment. With all the potential, energy and talent on display here, surely they could have come up with something better than what's offered here. It feels like Salvage climbs a tricky and barely-charted peak only to find a waterslide near the top and take that wild, wacky, ride back to the ground again.

The revelatory scene heralds a severe change in tone for the movie. Without going into spoiler territory, characters start acting in very different ways, some of which don't have the air of realism you felt earlier in the film. At least one pivotal action feels most cruel and unnecessarily deliberate, and there's a plot-hole in the finale which, while effective in terms of tension, will annoy anyone who notices it enormously. If this sounds like I'm damning the movie, I'm not. For the most part it's excellent stuff that pins the viewer to their seat, but it follows the same road as the soap opera that forms its location and tries to head down a more sensational, commercial path that feels at odd with its roots.

This won't bother everyone. I've watched this with two very different groups of friends - one hardcore horror fanatics and the other more mainstream. My hardcore friends agreed it's a great movie, but embarked on an hour-long discussion on why parts of the conclusion felt so familiar and disappointing. The mainstream friends loved the movie, saying it's one of the best things they've seen in ages and having absolutely no problems with the concluding sections. Avoiding spoilers, I can understand why both groups feel the way they do. There are elements of the finale that, if you've seen a lot of horror movies, you may feel you've seen before several times and perhaps done better. And once that sets in, you'll start noticing the cracks in the walls of the houses, start pulling them apart and maybe leave the street less impressed by it than when you arrived. But if you can just sit back and take the guided tour you'll be in for a treat, taken to unexpected places and ending somewhere you perhaps never imagined visiting.

With caveats, Salvage is intelligent, atmospheric and gripping. It tells a good story in a very tight 75 minutes, although with a little work "good" could have read "outstanding". The end result shows talent to watch out for and it's clear that both writer and director have sound foundations to build their careers upon. Soon, and with a little structural work, they'll be turning the shabbiest of soap streets into rows of mansions that are essential viewing. Recommended.

Review by Paul Bird

Released by Revolver Entertainment
Region 2 - PAL
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review