GAIA ****

Directed by Jaco Bouwer.
Starring Monique Rockman, Carel Nel, Alex van Dyk, Anthony Oseyemi.
 Horror, South Africa, 96 minutes, certificate 15.

Reviewed as part of Arrow Video FrightFest 2021

Released on digital platforms 27th September by Altitude


What should be a routine surveying exercise into a vast South African forest for two forestry rangers soon turns into an unnerving and surreal odyssey as nature itself begins to exert a mysterious hold over the environment and those within it. When Gabi is split up from her partner Winston in the forest, she runs into a pair of two men who have obviously been inhabiting these woods for years. Learning that Barend and Stefan are father and son, Gabi comes to realise that the two men are on more than a back to nature retreat with the younger Stefan not meeting another person other than his father and deceased mother. Barend’s reasons for avoiding civilisation soon come into focus when Gabi learns of his worship for a mysterious, possibly female, unearthly presence within the forest.


Jaco Bouwer and screenwriter Tertius Kapp have crafted a film that may have some familiar visual beats and themes of nature running amok, but GAIA manages to forge its own otherworldly path the further it goes along. While unfamiliar creatures scurry through the trees and men become fanatical hermits, much like Alex Garland’s ANNIHILATION and Ben Wheatley’s IN THE EARTH respectively, Bouwer and Kapp bring their own touches to this film that also delves into more surreal and hallucinatory territory.


The unfamiliar, yet entirely natural, environment helps contribute to the alien feeling. This is further enhanced by a drugged-up nature, which Gabi soon undergoes thanks to the help of Barend, who has also been feeding his son a steady diet of natural hallucinogens in an alarming act of coercive control. Barend’s motives for doing so gradually reveal themselves in ways that not only prove troubling for Gabi but possibly civilisation.


While the pacing may prove a bit too measured for those expecting a full throttle tale of survivalist horror those more in tune with GAIA’S slow but steady rhythms will find much to admire here and to also note Bouwer as a talent to keep their eye on in the future if he sticks to the fantastical. The trippy visuals morph into full on body horror but in a surprising fashion that while still grotesque carries a certain kind of beauty that more than proves GAIA as a distinct entry in its field. With its epic backdrop and themes this is a small-scale drama always threatening to spill out into something grander. The small cast of four do well here, particularly Carel Nel as the fanatical Barend in thrall to a possible god like entity.


In a year that saw several highly distinct features play at FrightFest this managed to stand out in an already impressive field. Clocking in at over ninety minutes there is a lot to unpack in this first feature. A tale of rebellion, of fathers against sons and nature against man, alongside its primary horror elements, this film will no doubt gather its own devoted following for those who discover it in their own way.


Iain MacLeod.


This web site is owned and published by London FrightFest Limited.

FrightFest is the registered trade mark of London FrightFest Limited.

© 2000 - 2021