Fantasia Fest 2020: UNEARTH Review – You Can Work The Ground But Beware What It Can Yield
Directed by John C. Lyons, Dorota Swies
Written by Kelsey Goldberg, John C. Lyons
Starring by Adrienne Barbeau, Marc Blucas, P.J. Marshall, Allison McAtee
Horror tends to be more afraid of the suburbs than rural America precisely because the consumers of horror traditionally have more in common with the typical suburban family dynamic. As host Kier-la Janisse and her panelists pointed out in yesterday’s Narratives of Resistance in Folk Horror Panel at Fantasia Fest, the suburban family wonders why evil things are happening all around them when they’re just trying to eke out a nice living in a quiet neighborhood. (Even if that neighborhood happens to be built on an Indian burial ground). The contrast between land ownership and land stewardship was also discussed highlighting the difference of feeling entitled to the land you care for and the Native American belief that we are only caretakers. The eco-horror film Unearth chooses to focus on two farming families whose struggles are usually overlooked in the genre. After its world premiere last night at Fantasia International Film Fest, there’s a little more representation in horror for independent farmers who, in this case, make a life-altering choice to allow the oil and gas industry to hold stewardship over their land with disastrous results.
Co-directors John Lyons and Dorota Swies film really is a tale of two families intertwined for better or for worse. The Lomacks, led by father George (Blucas) make the desperate decision to lease their land to a fracking conglomerate even over the strong objection of the Dolans led by the headstrong Kathryn (Barbeau). The construction takes its toll releasing dangerous air into the atmosphere but the disruption underneath also awakens something else. Mirroring the cause and effect familial relationship of last year’s heartbreaking but illuminating documentary Honeyland, the storyline of Unearth shows that things can go from bad to worse to…unimaginable very quickly.
It’s hard to be sure, but both directors may have had two different visions that may have conflicted with each other. The ending should be ratcheting up the tension and showing the horrific reality of losing everything but the direction simply falls apart with sloppy shaky cam shots and drawn out, frantic scenes of family members screaming in the middle of a corn field. Inventive underground shots showing strange, alien-like mushrooms being forced to the surface are also not as interesting once they bubble up and materialize topside. There is so much potential here for more disturbing confrontations between the underground poison and the families it starts to infect.
The horrific but strangely beautiful fate of one member in particular shows the direction Unearth could have gone in to make a truly memorable finale but things quickly devolve into bouts of madness and despair that’s fairly disorienting to watch. The message of Big Oil taking advantage of the American worker does remain in tact however and the performances by Blucas and Barbeau in particular are the two posts in the ground that humanize this story even when the fantastical elements start to sprout. Unearth could have pivoted from eco horror to more horror psychedelia in the vein of Alex Garland’s Annihilation, but the small terraria closing in on two doomed families never expands to fully encapsulate the terrifying world below.
A character driven parable about the struggles of rural America becomes a frenzied fight for survival for a family whose desperation leads to Big Oil wrecking lives and digging up something that should have stayed in the ground.