Writer-director Barnaby Clay opens his first feature with a grubby infant wandering through a desert chewing on an adult human finger, calling for mother. That pretty much establishes this isn’t going to be a cheery movie, and what we get out in this Utah wilderness – at once beautiful and terrifying – is something like an elliptical Hills Have Eyes: The Next Generation built around a homage to Woman of the Dunes.
Wyndham Stone (Scott Haze) is out here alone – bad idea – to photograph an eclipse, and is misled by another feral kid – the tribe have names like Orion, Lepus, Crux and Arvo – away from his car. He finds a ladder in a rock which leads down to a tin shack in a hollow most audiences will recognise as a trap, then climbs down and meets a peculiarly affectless, casually unforthcoming woman Alina (Kate Lyn Sheil) who offers him suspect meat soup – one of the few sensible things Stone does is not eat it – and a place to bed down for the night. The next morning, the rope ladder isn’t there and Alina doesn’t seem surprised or fussed. Stone, however, is stuck … with the weird, sinister kids occasionally taunting or tormenting him from the rim of the crater, or tossing down food and handy objects presumably foraged or stolen from other passersby.
Chapter titles mark different moons – Harvest Moon, Blue Moon, etc – and we see a plate of vegetables rot over time. Stone and Alina have an up and down relationship – he never asks the right questions, and she only gives hints as answers … but it’s a fair bet we’re well ahead of the leading man in realising just how trapped he is. The Seeding, which maybe gives its plot away in the title, is well-played and full of striking images, though it’s easy to lose patience with both its main characters … until Clay throws in tiny little moments, like Alina hearing a snatch of inadvertently-recorded music for the first time, which are fresh and surprising even as the plot grinds on.
Besides its obvious inspirations, I was reminded a bit of that 1970s oddity The Strange Vengeance of Rosalie – Sheil and Haze are exceptional, and the kids (Charlie Avink, Thatcher Jacobs, Harrison Middleton, Michael Monsour) at the edge of the crater are properly menacing. It has a terrific Tristan Bechet score and is Robert Leitzell’s cinematography makes the most of the stark landscape – but I’m not sure whether it’s an art film riff on back-of-beyond horror subject or a cannibal mutant desert picture told in the style of a non-Midnight Movie Sundance entry.