“There’s something sinister in the woods.” It’s not a direct line of dialogue from NEON’s upcoming eco-horror film “Gaia” but it could have been. This eerie new chiller from director Jaco Bouwer utilizes the tried-and-true creepy forest setting to great effect, sucking us into another bizarre and unsettling deep-woods scenario that melds mystery with the macabre. And while not as good as Ben Wheatley’s “In the Earth” from early this year, “Gaia” has a skin-crawling sense of dread that reverberates through the entire film.
I had to do a little research to learn Gaia refers to a deity known as the ancestral mother of all life. In Greek mythology she’s the personification of earth which makes her name a fitting title for this film. Written by Tertius Kapp, this South African feature begins with two forest rangers canoeing down a river that snakes through a dense forest. As Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) does the paddling Gabi (Monique Rockman) mans her drone as it descends from high overhead into the trees. She maneuvers it down a trail and gets a glimpse of man who promptly knocks the craft out of the air. Determined to get her drone back, Gabi hops out of the canoe to retrieve it while Winston goes ahead to check their game cameras.
Now anyone who knows horror movies understands that splitting up is never a good idea. That definitely proves to be the case here. After a nasty foot injury, a hobbled and frightened Gabi encounters a father and son, both thin as tails, covered in grime and wearing nothing more than tattered rags. They nurse her back to health beginning this unconventional journey where uncoiling the film’s mystery is more central than a focused plot.
From there the chilling tension sets in as Bouwer and Kapp slowly and methodically let us in on the secret of the woods. Much of it is channeled through the father Barend (Carel Nel) who clearly knows more than he’s telling. He has a zealous connection to the forest, even penning his own mysterious manifesto on what looks like ancient parchment. His son Stefan (Alex Van Dyk) is mostly silent and reserved; impressionable despite being raised under his father’s rigid fanaticism.
“Gaia” pours a lot into its uneasy atmosphere which burrows deeper under your skin the further we get into the story. That anxious feeling is helped by Pierre-Henri Wicomb’s ominous score and the rich sound design which fills the forest with spooky sounds of creaking wood, slithering roots and unidentifiable screeches. Meanwhile the special effects and makeup are spectacular, suggesting nature is to be both admired and feared; that it is simultaneously a thing of beauty and a terrifying force.
While the setup and much of the execution is intensely effective, the movie doesn’t hit all of its marks. It’s underlying message about both nature and modern civilization is obvious on the surface but gets murkier as it plays out. The film clearly presents a meddling humanity and a ticked off Mother Nature, but as characters go in certain directions it’s easy to lose sight of the deeper meanings. There’s also a relationship between Gabi and young Stefan that’s really hard to figure out. It’s not helped by a trippy hallucinogenic dream sequence, the kind where the director gets to do all sorts of weird things with the camera and to his characters. It’s something we’re seeing more and more in horror flicks these days and I’m kind of over them.
While it has its issues, “Gaia” is still a quality slice of modern horror. This modestly budgeted import uses its single location and four-person cast to tell a story of a vengeful planet taking back what has been stolen from it. The visuals, the sound, the score, and the performances all suck us into this foreboding location where nature has began its revolt. It’s the storytelling and messaging that gets a little clunky, keeping the film from fully delivering the punch it hopes to. Still, as a pure horror experience, Bouwer knows how to make his audience squirm. “Gaia” opens in theaters June 18th and on VOD June 25th.