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Fantasia ’20 Review: “UNEARTH” plants seeds of eco-horror within a well-crafted rural drama

Tuesday, September 1, 2020 | Fantasia International Film Festival, Review


Starring Adrienne Barbeau, Marc Blucas and Allison McAtee
Directed by John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies
Written by Kelsey Goldberg and John C. Lyons
Lyons Den Productions

For those familiar with rural farming life, there’s a lot that will ring true in UNEARTH. In both concept and execution, the film fully embraces the notion that things move a bit slower in the countryside. And while the seeds of horror planted within the storyline take quite some time to sprout, they blossom beautifully when they finally do.

A world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival, UNEARTH, directed by John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies, is a transportive tale of two neighboring families struggling with societal, personal and financial hardships associated with their rural living. The movie spends most of its 94-minute runtime developing character dynamics and motivations; bit by bit, we get to know these people intimately as they struggle with loss and hardship in very different ways. On one side, we have the Dolan family, anchored by tough-as-nails matriarch Kathryn (Adrienne Barbeau) and aspiring photographer Christina (Allison McAtee). Bound by obligation and strong familial ties, the Dolans struggle to balance productivity and profits, resulting in increasingly difficult circumstances, internal dissent and physical strain. Living right down the road are the Lomacks: George (Marc Blucas) fights to keep his mechanic shop profitable while supporting his daughters Heather (Rachel McKeon) and Kim (Brooke Sorenson) and her new baby Reese.​

Unable to compete with larger chain shops, George ends up succumbing to the enticing allure of Patriot Exploration, a gas and oil company looking to lease and mine local land for all its worth. While he is initially promised minimal disruption and healthy royalty checks, George soon finds his desperate decision has unintended consequences that threaten more than just his family’s financial well-being. Utilizing the violent and controversial method of fracking, Patriot ends up releasing something long-buried, contaminating the groundwater with disastrous results.

Beautifully shot by Eun-ah Lee, there’s a stark and bleak realism throughout UNEARTH. Greens, yellows and browns are highlighted, mirroring earth tones present in the natural landscape while simultaneously setting the emotional undercurrent of the characters. More than just a backdrop, Lee takes special care to highlight, shoot and frame the land surrounding the families, imbuing the location with a personality and presence all its own. Settling around the family like the sweet weight of humidity, trapped within the stalks of corn, UNEARTH creates a tangible and naturalistic temperature rooted in familiarity.

Much like the terrifying dangers trapped dormant beneath the Lomacks’ field, UNEARTH is also a heartbreaking peek at realities known to many, but often overlooked and underdiscussed. By using genre elements to explore the terror innate within its subject, Lyons (who also scripted with Kelsey Goldberg) and Swies create a hybrid strain of eco-horror falling somewhere between THE LODGE, CHILDREN OF THE CORN and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. While most of the film plays out like an intimate character-driven drama, don’t for one second think that these filmmakers take the name of horror in vain. While many of the genre elements arrive late in the film, one supporting element that leaves no question where things are headed is Jane Saunders’ haunting score. A churning, creaking, powerful and dense auditory experience, Saunders’ work provides UNEARTH an omnipresent sonic foundation that exudes tension and impending danger. Further bolstering the scare power is a bevy of truly stunning and unique practical effects that catch characters and audience alike off guard with their visceral effectiveness.

Fueled by timely societal and economic anxieties, strong performances and a convincingly genuine understanding of the subject matter, UNEARTH is a worthy slow-burn look at real-world terrors through a unique horror-tinted lens.