Writer/director Barnaby Clay’s latest feature, The Seeding, plants a timely seed of themes regarding parental anxieties, as well as questions of man’s use in our society, but a poorly conceived protagonist and meandering narrative choked by cheap thrills keep this survival horror tale from growing into its full potential.
While venturing out into the desert alone to take some photos, photographer Wyndham (Scott Haze) discovers a boy claiming he can’t find his parents, who then leads them away from civilization before disappearing. Lost and lacking any survival skills, the naïve hiker wanders to a canyon with a flimsy ladder leading down to a sun-scorched shack. There resides Alina, (Kate Lyn Sheil), who offers him soup and a bed and nothing more. Exhausted from the trek, Wyndham decides to stay the night. But when he awakens, he finds the ladder has gone, taken by a pack of wild boys who are now holding he and Alina captive. For what purpose, only time will tell.
As a director embarking on his first full-length horror feature, Barnaby Clay proves himself capable of creating the sort of dread that burrows its way beneath your skin. Coupling Tristan Bechet’s sinister (and highly effective) score with aerial shots exposing the wide expanse of the empty desert, the filmmaker inspires a sense of hopelessness that nibbles away at the viewer. Robert Letizell’s well-shot cinematography depicts an isolated place of life and death, the never-ending cycle of the two captured through lively swarms of ants and maggots as they devour the carcasses of dead animals. Earthy tones hammer home the inevitability of our existence, reminding us that sooner or later, we all crawl back into the earth.
Yet it’s difficult to care about such unsettling topics when the protagonist gives no reason whatsoever to cheer him on. Wyndham is the most frustrating type of horror character, making so many dumbfounding choices to drive the plot forward that you might think him color blind for how oblivious he is to every red flag in the book. Worse, he’s a whiny prick who spends most of his time shouting at Alina and demanding answers, of which she offers none. Following a problematic protagonist is fine, but it makes it near impossible to root for his escape, even despite the cruelty of the boys dangling ropes and other forms of freedom over him like holding a ball of yarn just out of reach of a cat. Meanwhile, Sheil’s monotone performance works to clothe her character with a strange mysteriousness, but furthers the cold divide between the two. Absent of any chemistry within the domestic prison they share, The Seeding keeps the viewer at a distance rather than drawing us in to their characters.
In fairness to the performers, the issues plaguing The Seeding have less to do with them and more to do with the intentions of the script. While Clay’s story moves at the pace of a corpse rotting underneath a hot desert sun—especially after the characters become resigned to their predicament—the contained setting, the distant relationship between them, and the primal rage permeating from Wyndham all work to enhance themes discussing the cycle of life and man’s place in it. Wyndham and Alina’s isolated, domestic box becomes a microcosm for this cycle and the paranoia’s that come with parenthood. Clay leaves his themes out in the open, on the nose with them to a fault and leading to an underwhelming finish. The filmmaker implies something grander at play, yet never delves into just what that is aside from the occasional folkloric terror of muttered incantations and strange drawings on the walls of the canyon.
Clay takes a respectable, methodic approach to The Seeding, but it comes at the unfortunate cost of genuine tension and engagement with the characters. A too-vague premise emphasizing thematic intention over story leaves this as an under-watered tale without the proper nutrients to grow. Still, the director establishes himself as a technically capable filmmaker that has the potential to do wonders with a more well thought-out script, leaving me curious to see what other seeds the director plants in the future.
The Seeding comes to VOD on January 26th from Magnolia Pictures.
By Matt Konopka