[Fantasia 2020 Review] 'Unearth' Digs Up an Unpleasant Exploration of Families in the Midst of Eco-Horror
Modern civilization has given way to the massive industrialization of the land we inhabit...
...I grew up in a state that relies heavily on its farming operations and while I don’t have a family tied to that industry, I certainly knew people that were. The threat of being bought out by mega conglomerates was very real and very common practice. Directors John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies have attempted to tackle similar territory with a horror twist in their new film, Unearth, written by Lyons and Kelsey Goldberg. Having just made its World Premiere at the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, this satirically charged horror film has a lot to say and says it well, but it might not be the most fun you’ll have at the movies this year.
Unearth tells the homegrown tale of two farming families caught in the middle of a hydraulic fracturing takeover. The Dolan family already have quite the setup with their land and refuse the large payout offer given by the fracking company. The Lomacks on the other hand, are in a bit of a jam, as George (Marc Blucas), father of two, is struggling to keep his mechanic business afloat. They have land, but after years of neglect, George sees it as a burden rather than a goldmine. Taking advantage of his family’s vulnerable financial dilemma, the fracking company lays out an offer George can’t refuse. Naturally, this sparks conflict between the families, eventually soiling ties and relationships that have been nurtured for many years. As the mounting family tension approaches its peak stress, a new problem rears its ugly head deep within the Earth. The constant fracking has triggered a mysterious toxin that has leaked its way into the water supply. Now, both families must put aside their differences in order to combat the venomous new enemy.
We’ve all seen plenty of films that center around a small town being overtaken by catastrophic evils. Whether it’s a virus, zombies, aliens, or inbred hillbillies, all these flicks usually share a more all-encompassing viewpoint of the disturbance. Sometimes, it even becomes international, cutting between several sets of characters in separate countries. Unearth, on the other hand, stays close to home. It’s not the first film to do this by any means, but it’s not the norm in this particular subgenre. By taking this route, we get a close (sometimes uncomfortably close) inspection of how these select individuals behave under extraordinarily rough circumstances. It’s in these high tension, heavy drama scenes that the film really excels and that’s in large part due to the fantastic performances. Unearth boasts a pretty large cast, but the true standouts are easily Adrienne Barbeau as Kathryn Dolan and Allison McAtee as Christina Dolan. Barbeau portrays a cast iron skillet of a woman, who has lived a long, hard working life. Any tinge of innocent naiveté she may have had in her younger years was stripped away long ago, as she spends most of the film preparing her daughter, Christina, for the hardships that lie ahead. The overbearing hold Kathryn has over Christina is mostly toxic, though. Even if Kathryn has good intentions, Christina is enslaved to their land and her dreams of becoming a model are constantly trampled over. Both women fully inhabit their roles, and this is just one of the many rich character conflicts. Almost every character is at odds with another, but it all feels natural, never amounting to contrived emotional manipulations.
From the very first shot, it’s evident that Unearth is a looker. Not in a stylized or showy way, but rather in its framing, with emphasis on color consistency and on-location filming. Almost every shot is telling us something important or establishing atmosphere and the photography is never taken for granted. For example, all of the shots within the Lomack household feel cramped and stuffy, perfectly reflecting their stressful home life. There are blankets and curtains separating rooms because they can’t afford to replace doors, and it’s as if there’s a permanent layer of dust coating every piece of furniture’s itchy fabric. The brown color palette of the film further amplifies all of these little details. The on-location shoots were filmed in northwestern Pennsylvania and they fully took advantage of every acre. There wasn’t a moment that forced me to suspend disbelief, as the visual authenticity in this film is truly something special.
Up to this point, I’ve had nothing but positive, well-earned things to say about the film. Unearth is executed with professionalism, painstaking detail, and a complete understanding of the craft of filmmaking. My problem with the film is that it’s simply not very enjoyable to watch. Now, not every film needs to be a big ball of fun. Some of the best films in history are those that explore very upsetting and bleak subjects. I don’t and can’t hold anything against Schindler’s List (1993) for being too sad. It’s an important film and one that I believe everyone should see, but even in that film, there are still characters you want to get behind and root for. It offers a sense of elation when good overcomes evil, even if the majority of the film is upsetting. Unearth does give us very real, three dimensional characters, but I never sympathized very much with any of them because I just didn’t like anyone. In a horror film, if you don’t like anyone at all, it’s hard to get emotionally invested in their run-ins with danger and peril. Everyone does a fantastic job with the material and while I don’t like them, they are believable. I just wanted the opportunity to sympathize and relate to at least one character and I never got that here. Aside from the characters themselves, the story and overall tone of the film is so drab and depressing that I became uninterested after a while. Unearth gets so wrapped up in its anti-industrialization message that it forgets to rally the audience with good reasons to care about the actual people.
As a horror title, Unearth is a mixed bag. The way in which this contagion manifests is visually interesting, but once it begins its infectious spree, it’s just too little, too late. Some of this is just the nature of the kind of film Unearth is. This is definitely not your typical B horror movie, but rather a close inspection of a disintegrating family dynamic. Of course, that is an important subgenre of horror, just not quite the one I was expecting. I did like how the toxin’s origins were vague and it never dwelled on the specifics of what this thing actually is. While contrary to my usual preference of wanting to know as much detail and exposition as possible, its mystery works well in the film. It’s not important where it came from or what it is in a film like this. Lyons knows his characters are far more interesting than the earthbound threat.
The toughest films to review are those that excel in nearly every aspect of filmmaking but are insufferable or laborious to watch. Unearth is certainly not insufferable to sit through, but it isn’t a pleasant experience either. I do appreciate the visual consistency, authenticity, and complex character conflicts, but as emotionally charged as these characters are, it leaves the audience cold because we never warm up to any of them. It’s a shame too, because these actors clearly pour their hearts into their roles. Unearth is technically a good film, but the bleak plot, unlikable characters, and last-minute horror moments make it something I simply can’t recommend to horror buffs. However, if you’re a fan of the technical aspects of a film that create mood and atmosphere, there may be just enough to satisfy. Just don’t expect a very frightening or even engaging experience. If a contagion-based horror romp is what you’re looking for, you won’t find it here.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth