Directors: John C. Lyons, Dorota Swies
Notable Cast: Allison McAtee, Adrienne Barbeau, Marc Blucas, Brooke Sorenson, Rachel McKeon, PJ Marshall, Monica Wyche, Chad Conley
One of the big US premieres of Mile High Horror Film Festival, Unearth is aimed to make some indie horror waves in the community. Following in the steps of one of the popular movements in horror currently, which happens to be the slow burn and atmospheric horror that is often (and irritatingly) referred to as ‘elevated horror,’ there is a sense of message and purpose to the film that ought to ring strongly with those who align with this style. While there is not a lot of information or marketing out for the film at this point, making my usual analysis of the context in this opening paragraph a bit moot, keep the sense of artistic approach that directors Lyons and Swies use in mind as the industry preps to back the film for a bigger release in the future. Unearth is a film dripping with intriguing layers, naturalistic characters, and a wild last 20 minutes that ought to have Lovecraftian fans’ ears burning. On the other hand, it’s also one that takes its sweet, sweet time establishing the characters, plot, and stakes to get there – doubling down on the SLOW in slow burn.
Judging from the gorgeous poster above, one might assume Unearth features a dream-like ethereal tone to the film. While the final act certainly gets to that point, although nightmare-like might be a more appropriate term, most of the film is spent very much grounded in reality. Two neighboring families, struggling with a down turning economy are courted by a massive gas company to lease their land for the natural gas reserves underneath. When one of them does it and the company moves in, they accidentally unleash something in the earth that will start to affect all the residents.
A majority of Unearth is spent developing the plot, setting, and characters. Like, a lot of the film. I’m not joking. The fracking that happens to unleash the gooey goo that starts to change and manipulate the fine folks of the area doesn’t even happen until the midpoint of the film and the true body horror of its finale doesn’t really kick in until the last 20 minutes. This kind of slow pacing, focusing on the characters, their situation, and the environment, is fine as long as there is something in the script or a stylish approach that can carry the audience. This is perhaps the biggest downfall of Unearth. It’s a film that essentially moves like a slow drama for 70% of its run time and the style is completely subdued until the latter half. The performances are solid, the realism of how its shot adds a dramatic and realistic tone to the rising tensions, and the concept of the unforeseen consequences of disturbing the earth is clever, but the pacing and the lack of moments to indicate the path forward make for a challenging watch. It’s one that ‘elevated’ horror fans might find right in their wheelhouse.
This approach to realistic and thoughtful human elements to horror is the reason that Unearth will appeal, but for more casual horror fans it will be the big and bold Lovecraftian tinged final act that truly sells the experience. Although going into more detail might betray the experience of working through this cinematic nightmare imagery and concepts, rest assured the combination of the devious goop, the realism of the setup, and the frantic speed that the film suddenly divebombs in to make for a pretty satisfying horror climax. Even when the film is incredibly hesitant to reveal any details or explanation, the horror is ferocious and it makes for a strong pivot.
Unearth is an intriguing film overall. Conceptionally, the film has captivating messaging with subtle and strong performances to carry through its heavily dramatic first two acts. The sluggish manner of its development and lacking hints of horror early on make for a challenging and artsy watch for more casual horror fans, but the final moments of the film are so starkly terrifying and memorable that it’s worth working through it. Truthfully, it’s a film that deserves a rewatch when one understands where it’s all heading – as there has to be more hints and themes buried in the film if one is willing to dig. For now, Unearth will appease the ‘elevated’ horror crowd and be a curiosity check for those who enjoy a challenging piece of cinema.