Grimmfest 2020 film review: Unearth
Slow-burn social realism8
Ian Winterton | On 10, Oct 2020
Directors: John C. Lyons, Dorota Swies
Cast: Allison McAtee, Adrienne Barbeau , Marc Blucas, Brooke Sorenson, Rachel McKeon
Watch Unearth online in the UK: Grimmfest 2020
Unearth is streaming online as part of Grimmfest 2020. For the full festival line-up and how it works, click here
As befits its environmentalist subject matter, every frame of Unearth is rooted in the natural world. Set solely within an insular and impoverished rural community in the Lake Erie area of Pennsylvania – into which stomps a mighty oil and gas corporation – it’s a cinematic representation of the ‘act local think global’ dictum. This is the story of two farming families, the Dolans and the Lomacks, and the effects of fracking on them and the land of which they are custodians.
As a character-led drama it’s a compelling premise, and much of the film is a brilliantly written examination of a community abandoned by the government, and preyed upon by the corporations. But, as the poster informs us, Unearth is also a “fracking horror movie”. This jarringly jokey tagline is quite a thing to lumber this sombre-minded film with, but the same could be said of writer-directors Lyons and Swies’ decision to bring Cronenbergian body-horror into the mix.
This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem – using horror to smuggle a serious message out to the masses goes back to the B-movies of yore – but Unearth’s horror comes very late in the day, and isn’t foreshadowed. Speaking to Vodzilla, Swies defended this decision, saying: “If you want to make a film that pleases everybody… then I would not make movies. That’s not the point. The point is to make films that break the rules.”
This sounds laudable but, damn it, there’s no getting away from the fact that Unearth breaks the rules to its own detriment. Its forensic and slow-burning dissection of the two families is gripping – and plays out as though it’s going to lead to some sort of character-driven tragedy. But it doesn’t. Instead, two-thirds of the way in, we’re hit with the idea that the fracking has unleashed something supernatural/monstrous – and it begins to wreak havoc on the bodies of the farmers.
Lyons and Swies have assembled a fantastic cast, including Marc Blucas (best known as Riley Finn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and horror legend Adrienne Barbeau who, when married to John Carpenter, starred in the maestro’s masterpieces The Fog and Escape From New York. Allison McAtee, too – a native, like director Lyons and Blucas, of Lake Erie – is a stand-out, which won’t be a surprise to anyone who’s seen her on TV opposite David Duchovny in Californication.
The effects are great, too, and there are some pleasingly gruesome scenes, but it’s all in the service of a narrative misstep that will leave those invested in the intertwined fate of the Dolans and the Lomacks feeling short changed. It’s genuinely perplexing, considering how the filmmakers get pretty much everything else right. The social realism of the script is complemented by a muted, earthy palette, and beautifully lush evocation of the Pennsylvanian countryside – a result of Swies, an artist, collaborating with cinematographer Eun-ah Lee.
The depiction of the dark, satanic drilling rigs – and the resultant pollution – is equally evocative, which only highlights how unnecessary the supernatural scares feel; in humanity’s despoliation of the natural world, there’s horror enough.