Directed by Jaco Bouwer.
Starring Monique Rockman, Carel Nel, Alex van Dyk, and Anthony Oseyemi.
An injured forest ranger on a routine mission is saved by two off-the-grid survivalists whose devotion to the forest has nightmarish consequences.
One of the stranger movies to have been screened at this year’s FrightFest, South African folk/eco/body horror Gaia hits the streaming services this month along with all the other horror movies claiming to be an ‘original’. Of course, in production terms they are but stylistically Gaia is more original than all of the metaphors for mental illness and ghosts looking to claim back what is theirs put together.
The movie opens with some stunning camera work as we get a dynamic upside-down drone shot along a river cutting through a jungle. The drone is very important as it belongs to Gabi (Monique Rockman), a forest ranger who, along with her colleague Winston (Anthony Oseyemi), is on a routine patrol through the dense jungle. After they get separated Gabi is injured and finds shelter in a shack deep in the forest but the shack belongs to Barend (Carel Nel) and his son Stefan (Alex van Dyk), who tend to her injuries but don’t really seem keen to have her around.
Both father and son are devotees to a religion that sees them worship an ancient force that lives beneath the forest, all the while defending themselves against the zombiefied tree creatures that emerge from the undergrowth and hunt for blood to nourish the soil… or something. It’s never quite clear what they’re about but with Gabi and Stefan’s blossoming relationship threatening to undermine Barend’s control over his son, tensions escalate as his increasingly bizarre behaviour turns violent and the forest demands a sacrifice.
For what it lacks in plot Gaia more than makes up for with eerie atmosphere, stunning visuals and committed performances. The writing doesn’t always do justice to all the other components, and whilst the movie isn’t a total slow-burner there is a brooding menace at work rather than the all-out assault on the senses that a body/eco horror mash-up suggests. The sense of threat and arty visuals may put off anybody looking for something more visceral but when Gaia gets nasty it gets very nasty, such as its depictions of what happens to the victims of the forest, and is as horrific as any Cronenberg creation (although the Jordy Verrill section of Creepshow is never far away in terms of a reference point).
The real intrigue of Gaia, however, lies with Barend and Stefan’s religious beliefs and that is the one part of the film that is never truly explored to any great depth. We get Barend’s explanation of why he gave up on the civilised world to live a federal existence in the jungle but it never feels complete, as if there was more to uncover. The vagueness in the plot details play into the many metaphors about class, religion and the obvious environmental messages that you can take from the story, giving it a similar air of mystery to an arthouse movie but never completely stepping over the line, despite the mushroom-fuelled dreams that Gabi has adding a more surreal edge to the final act.
Gaia is a movie that stands out amongst the current crop of horror films doing the rounds simply by being s little bit different. The CGI isn’t too intrusive when it makes an appearance and what happens to the human body once the forest claims it provides one of the most striking images in contemporary horror, but the deliberately paced reveal of Barend’s intentions and the thin plot might not appeal to those looking for blood-pumping thrills and surface-level jump scares. Nevertheless, Gaia offers up a vision of earthly horrors totally unlike anything else doing the rounds at the moment, and being an original horror movie in the current climate of direct-to-streaming production line titles is reason enough to get behind it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★