Monique Rockman stars in the ecological horror film "Gaia" from director Jaco Bouwer (image courtesy Neon)

From the studio that brought you “In the Earth” comes the newest tale of timber terror “Gaia” from South African filmmaker Jaco Bouwer making his directorial debut. The ecological horror film takes the viewer deep in the thicket where an injured forest ranger named Gabi encounters a father and son living off the grid. At first, the duo seems to be practicing a form of nature-based pagan religion but then creatures resembling something out of a Guillermo del Toro nightmare emerge and all bets are off. Trippy woodland horror that leaves a lasting impression.

Do you remember the good old days when the only frightening things in the woods were either crazed hillbillies or demons? Now, most backwoods horror films require you to fire up the brain cells to rationalize what’s happening on screen. Ben Wheatley loves to push the envelope as in the 2021 Sundance debut “In the Earth” which was forged at the height of last year’s COVID outbreak.

A week into shooting, “Gaia” was shut down by the pandemic and so there is a parallel construct between Bouwer and Wheatley’s films. Both were impacted by the virus physically but also spiritually. According to Bouwer, “I don’t think the performances in Gaia would’ve had the same emotional undercurrent if it wasn’t for the pandemic and its interruption into our work.” What emerged was a survival story, a battle against an unseen force, one similarly waged by all of us in 2020. From that beginning, Bouwer along with writer Tertius Kapp (also credited as a producer), conceived a blend of ecological horror with a healthy dose of psychosis.

The film begins with a beautiful shot of forest rangers Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) canoeing down a quiet river reflecting the lush greenery as if they were floating on a mirror — the first of many creative shots by Director of Photography Jorrie van der Walt. Something lurks in the South African woods keeping a close watch on the two as the check trail cameras mounted throughout the forest. The problem seems to be thick slabs of mud smeared on the lenses but by whom or what?

As the tension mounts, there is a sense that the two rangers are headed into John Boorman territory, but this isn’t “Deliverance” and the horrors surrounding the Cahulawassee River are at least avertible. When Gabi’s drone goes down, she separates from Barend to find its whereabouts as he continues down the river to check the remaining cameras. Not a smart move since the last image the drone recorded was that of a man covered in mud holding a spear.

After a grueling injury to the foot (later explored in a gory scene that dares you to watch), Gabi encounters the mysterious mud men, Baren (Carel Nel), and his teenage son Stefan (Alex van Dyk). The two survivalists nurse her back to health while she observes their disturbing devotion to nature. Spores and fungi play an important role in the “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature” tale, but before you discount the film as just another work of phycological horror, creatures that resemble something out of Guillermo del Toro fantasy crossed with the aliens in John Krasinski’s “Quiet Place” films, throw an interesting spin on Bouwer’s film.

This is not just another Mother Nature fights back horror film thanks to the Ari Aster-like “Midsommer” WTF moments. “Gaia” is a mind-bending thriller lead by Monique Rockman’s first-rate performance. Allow some time for reflection upon leaving the theater.

(3 stars)

Now showing in theaters and available VOD

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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