A pair of politically opposed families must unite to survive an insidious evil in Richard Greenwood Jr’s This Land.
One of the great things about horror movies is the capacity for their stories to encompass social issues, the death and terror keeping things engaging while leaving their narrative undertones free to discuss real-world issues in allegory. With contemporary Western society often divided along political lines, the comparative lack of clashes of such ilk seems a missed opportunity, with the highest profile example being the controversial thriller The Hunt. To properly tell such a story requires a certain degree of sensitivity and balance, which This Land ultimately manages to realise, at least in part.
The story sees traumatised Ava (Natalie Whittle) a year into attempting to recover from a tragedy, with her husband Neil (Adam Burch) and their teenage son Dakota (Jerod Powers) taking her away for a Thanksgiving weekend at a remote cabin to hopefully allow her to relax. Unfortunately, the building has been double-booked, forcing them to share the space with a family of far more conservative leanings, consisting of father Grady (John P Pistone), mother Barb (Mindy Montavon) and daughter Reagan (Taylor Scorse). However, they soon find that their disagreements count for little when they are targeted by a sinister cult intent on fatally capitalising on their division.
Although that sounds like it would make for a tale of relentless foreboding, the horror doesn’t truly kick off until the final half-hour, but that’s not to say the story is slow. It instead takes the time to establish the characters and their two sets of family dynamics, along with the utterly incompatible nature of their beliefs. The ideological discord is about as subtle as a diatribe from an average episode of South Park, and also about as complicated to distinguish which side of the issue its writer sides with. The parents on the Left are afforded character development and nuance and are ultimately shown to be far more complex than the surface-level details by which others define them. In contrast, the adults of the Right don’t extend far beyond their defining stereotypes of a racist police officer and a dutiful housewife, and such an oversight cheapens the “Not So Different” message ultimately touched upon but robbed of the chance to be truly explored.
Far more interesting is that neither of the two teenagers are portrayed as being particularly invested in the political tribalism, being far more content to experience life as it’s presented to them, most prominent being frustration with their parents not properly understanding them. Revelations about their dreams and desires stubbornly refuse to conform to either leaning, and there is the tacit suggestion that if enough young people avoid the pitfalls of rigid and inflexible ways of thinking they, along with society as a whole, have a far better chance of continued survival.
Nevertheless, the verbal disagreements serve well in establishing the characters’ diametric opposites, and nicely set up tense interpersonal conflicts that keep you expecting violence to break out at any moment. They also pale into insignificance with the appearance of the true enemy that cares nothing for their squabbling, instead seeing everyone involved as being so far beneath them it’s meaningless to distinguish them in any way. Although this is an important payoff to the earlier arguments over the Red/Blue divide, it being afforded a comparative lack of focus makes it feel more like an afterthought.
The cult targeting the families are worshippers of Aztec god Xipe Totec, their interpretation focusing far more on his status as the Flayed One and a bringer of war and death than his primary purpose as a deity symbolising renewal and rebirth. Although it’s sadly in no way unusual for horror movies to appropriate figures from indigenous mythologies without properly understanding who they are or what they represent, this time it’s done with a sly wink that acknowledges how problematic such cultural ignorance can be by making the story’s true antagonists guilty of it.
When it comes, the violence is unflinching and brutal, and is especially impressive for being achieved within the confines of a small budget, the largely practical effects bursting from the screen with a visceral intensity. Like the best horror it makes you feel for those involved rather than merely being brutality for the sake of it, and knowing how few of them are likely to make it out alive keeps the action compelling and intense, giving the culture war a literal interpretation.
This Land is both a political allegory and an engaging horror movie, balancing enough of each that its main issues are clear within its microcosmic framework. It’s a little muddled with regards to the various secondary messages it attempts to portray, and the subtlety with which it does so continually fluctuates, but it nevertheless conveys an important message about recognising who your real enemies are and not letting yourself be distracted into forgetting it. It efficiently achieves what it sets out to do, knowing full well there’s little ambiguity in anything it says or does.
- the focus on character development
- the crescendoing tension
- commentary on the West’s appropriation of indigenous culture
- the efficiently realised violence
- The imbalanced portrayal of each side of the political divide
- The muddled portrayal of the secondary messages
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