Gaia (South Africa, 2021)
I have a big list of films people have recommended to me over the years. While I rarely remember to check it, some titles just stick in my head. Gaia was one of these, recommended to me by Jon Cohorn of Modern Horrors, back when I was canvassing for suggestions for my 2021 OHMC. Jon rarely steers me wrong and I’m always keen to check out his recommendations. Gaia wasn’t available to stream at the time, however, so it languished on the list. Happily, I stumbled across it while trawling the streaming services this year, so it’s time to head deep into the jungle and meet Mother Nature.
Gaia is currently available on Freevee in the UK.
Winston and Gabi are forest rangers, patrolling a huge area of virgin jungle in South Africa. They have monitoring cameras set up throughout the region, but someone has been sabotaging them. Winston blames some “crusty old hippies”.
When the drone they’re using to survey the jungle crashes, Gabi heads off to retrieve it while Winston continues checking the cameras. This quickly goes wrong when Gabi steps into a trap that sends a wooden spike through her foot, dosing her with strong psychedelics. She is retrieved some hours later by the crusty old hippies and taken to their shack.
These hippies turn out to be a father and son, Barend and Stefan, who have been living in the wild for many years. Barend is a former scientist, specialising in plant pathology. He rejected the modern world when his wife, a chemical engineer, developed cancer from exposure to benzine. They headed into the jungle together, and their lives were transformed when they met God.
As Gabi learns about this vast goddess, who lives under the earth, Winston encounters those the goddess has touched and transformed.
Will the rangers manage to escape Gaia’s blessings? Are Barend’s apocalyptic prophecies mere delusions? And what really happened to his wife out there in the jungle?
Didn’t I review this film already? A forest ranger is taken prisoner by a former scientist living in the woods who worships a huge, underground mushroom god, leading to a wildly psychedelic third act. Oh, and there’s a serious foot injury. I’m not saying that Gaia and In the Earth are identical, but the parallels are uncanny. If they hadn’t come out around the same time, I would have assume one had borrowed from the other. Maybe there really is a mushroom god, and it guided the creation of both these films.
The mystical aspects of Gaia are rather different, however. Barend has constructed a belief system that rejects modern technology, inculcating this in his son. This is so strong that when Gabi shows Stefan a picture of a car, he recoils, telling her it is a monster. Everything in their world comes from nature, and they consume psychedelic morsels of their god as a sacrament.
Gaia was shot on location in the Tsitsikamma forest in South Africa. Every moment we spend in this jungle environment is stunning to look at. This is a film that makes perfect use of its locations, enforcing a sense of isolation and the deadly duality of nature.
While Gaia makes sparing use of special effects, they are very good indeed. The sprouting growths of fungus that appear everywhere look disturbingly real, and I can imagine viewers scratching themselves for days afterwards.
As others have already pointed out, the mushroom creatures in Gaia very much resemble the Clickers from The Last of Us. While I only know them from the TV adaptation, which came out after Gaia, I understand the monsters in the original video game are almost identical.
In another year, Gaia might have been my pick of the month. It’s only the stiff competition it’s up against that makes that unlikely this time.
This a thoughtful, weird movie that shows us both the beauty and horror in nature. The characters and their motivations are fascinating, and I loved watching Gabi unwittingly fall into the role of the serpent in Barend and Stefan’s Garden of Eden. As I became invested in the growing, shifting conflict between these characters, I almost forgot about the fungal monsters and the giant mushroom god beneath the earth. And the ending ties everything together in a way that is pitch dark, and subtle without being oblique.
For all the comparisons I made with In the Earth, Gaia really does feel like something fresh and original. Every aspect of it simply works, and it’s never less than engaging. Highly recommended if you fancy something unusual to round out your month’s viewing.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Dark August (USA, 1976)
- Huesera: The Bone Woman (Mexico/Peru, 2022)
- The Banishing (UK, 2020)
- Brooklyn 45 (USA, 2023)
- Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell (Japan, 1995)
- Pyewacket (Canada, 2017)
- Grave Robbers (Mexico, 1989)
- You Might Be The Killer (USA, 2018)
- No One Will Save You (USA, 2023)
- The Sect (Italy, 1991)
- Last Night in Soho (UK, 2021)
- Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil (Spain, 2017)
- 47 Metres Down (UK/USA, 2017)
- The Oskars Fantasy (Philippines, 2022)
- In the Earth (UK, 2021)
- Something in the Dirt (USA, 2022)
- Blood Flower (Malaysia, 2023)
- Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Canada, 1987)
- Older Gods (UK, 2023)
- Come to Daddy (New Zealand, 2020)
- Shrew’s Nest (Spain, 2014)
- Totally Killer (USA, 2023)
- The Premonition (USA, 1976)
- Murder Me, Monster (Argentina, 2018)
- The Gruesome Twosome (USA, 1967)
- Talk to Me (Australia, 2023)
- Gaia (South Africa, 2021)
- Demon (Poland, 2015)
- Juju Stories (Nigeria, 2022)
- El Conde (Chile, 2023)
- The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (Hong Kong/UK, 1974)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Night House
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!