GasLand as Horror Documentary

“GasLand” is the scariest documentary I’ve seen since “The Corporation” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” and maybe the scariest film I’ve seen since “Paranormal Activity.” No, wait. Scratch that. It might just be the scariest film I’ve ever seen.

Here’s why: first of all, Josh Fox–the director–comes across as a genuine and likable narrator, an everyman who never once feels like a filmmaker. This isn’t Michael Moore, who we’ve come to distrust, and this isn’t some suave and good-looking TV host who was hired for his plastic good looks. Fox just seems like an everyman, a dude who bought a camera and decided to film his journey toward understanding something crazy happening all around him. He’s a dude who goes on a road trip to learn the answers to a great number of questions he’s been wondering. In this way, the movie carries all of the “this could happen to me” fright-power of “Paranormal Activity” and “Diary of the Dead” and even “Cloverfield.” It is amateurish, in a good way, and it is immersive. Josh Fox is us, and we are Josh Fox, and we are never allowed to leave the nightmare world he has entered.

Second, “GasLand” has the Stephen King-esque ability to take the ordinary ideas and objects that motivate us or that surround our daily lives, and transform them into something hideous and dangerous. King made cell phones into instruments of death in “Cell,” and the common flu into a worldwide plague in “The Stand.” Whatever is ordinary becomes terrifying in his hands. In “GasLand,” Fox pairs our unyielding pursuit of new energy sources (in this case, natural gas) with our most taken-for-granted natural resource (water), and creates the overwhelming feeling that we could be headed for a truly cataclysmic future. When he sets fire to ordinary tap water, just by holding a lighter to a running faucet, the images are at first shocking…but then they marinate in your mind for awhile, and what at first was just a shocking visual soon becomes an epic nightmare: what if all well water is ruined, polluted by natural gas? What would we do if all of the systems that we relied upon for a functioning society (our faucets, and running water, first and foremost) were to break down?

And finally, “GasLand” does what so many other frightening documentaries have done: it not only showcases the problem with the natural gas “fracturing” technology, but shows clear evidence that the major corporations know of its detrimental effects, have attempted to silence or discredit those who try to speak out, and have essentially paid off any politicians who might stand in the way of their continued pursuit of natural gas and further profit. In the end, we have seen so many stories of “salt of the earth” people in Wyoming and Arkansas and Pennsylvania who have been intimidated and ignored and hushed, that we feel like there’s nothing we can do. We are powerless; we are doomed to the future nightmare that we have imagined.

Hey, listen: I’m not entirely naive. I know that this film is an argument, and that Josh Fox has made it as frightening as possible so that he be as persuasive as possible. He has perhaps made the danger more imminent than it is, the stakes higher than they really are. Perhaps. As “everyman” as he appears, he’s also a very skilled filmmaker.

But I’ll tell you what: there were moments in this movie where he didn’t even have to try very hard to make the images frightening, where a single five-second scene could do far more than any camera trick, any sappy music, any rhetorical flourish or savvy speech. “GasLand” is a scary movie for all of the strategies I listed above, but mostly, it’s a scary movie because Fox doesn’t even *need* to be a skilled filmmaker in order to terrify us; he only needs to let the images speak for themselves, and in the end, that’s what keeps us awake at night. Brilliant and haunting. “GasLand” is a must-see, and the issue that Fox explores is certainly one that we should all be worried about.

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