[Fantasia 2020] UNEARTH Review: A Dark Tale of Ecological Terror

By: Emily von Seele

The strains of a dying agricultural industry and the evils of fracking come to a head in the horror tale Unearth. Directed by John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies, the film tells the story of two neighboring families, both struggling against poverty and obsolescence.

The Dolan family, led by matriarch Kathryn (Adrienne Barbeau), has farming in their blood. They keep their operation small and work their land with care. To the frustration of Kathryn’s son, Tom (P.J. Marshall), she has passed on opportunities to grow by planting industrial crops and getting into bed with the big agriculture monster that ultimately aims to drive small farms like hers out of business. The family is struggling to make it work, but they get by, largely due to Kathryn’s hard-headed determination.

George Lomack (Marc Blucas) is facing his own set of troubles. Recently left by his wife, he has long since abandoned farming, and instead tries to support his family as a mechanic with his own garage. Business is slow and the bills are piling up, so one day he makes a deal with the devil in the form of a natural gas company. He agrees to lease them his land. As the drilling begins, it unleashes more than natural gas. A fine powder begins to cover everything in sight, and makes its way into the water supply for both families. Soon, people start getting sick. Some family members begin hallucinating, some won’t heal properly, and still others begin to physically transform into something that is only a shadow of their former selves.

The film is well-paced, digging deeply into the struggles that each family faces and letting that take center stage. The body horror really only comes into play in the last third of the movie, which gives us plenty of time to get to know these characters and feel the weight that they carry. George isn’t excited to turn to the natural gas company for help — even less so when he has to face Kathryn’s reaction to his decision — but it’s his only option left. He has been driven to the brink and makes the only choice available to him.

Similarly, Kathryn is struggling within an industry where a small, dedicated family operation can hardly hope to stand up against the corporate titans of the farming business, but she stays in it. She believes resolutely that if she keeps going, she will make it through, and maybe will even be able to bring a few people around to her way of thinking.

Eventually though, the monster they face becomes more than just the threat of foreclosure or the loss of a business. The strange poison set free by the drilling leaches into the land and into the water and begins having a horrendous effect on both families. Lyons and Swies do a great job of understanding their limitations. The small budget of this film doesn’t allow for a ton of effects, but they do a lot with what they have, and shoot around what they don’t. There are a few moments that are utterly horrifying as our characters turn into something else entirely.

Though the ending is a bit abrupt and doesn’t quite come together, the film does a great job exploring the plights of its characters before getting into the monstrous consequences of their decisions. The cast does an amazing job of selling both the desperation and the determination at play in stories like these, where we see the American dream dying a slow death at the hands of an unbeatable monster.

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