A film review by Craig J. Koban June 10, 2021

IN THE EARTH jjj

2021, R, 107 mins.

Joel Fry as Martin Lowery  /  Ellora Torchia as Alma  /  Hayley Squires as Dr. Olivia Wendle  /  Reece Shearsmith as Zach Whitehead  /  John Hollingworth as Lord James Karel  /  Mark Monero as Dr. Frank Jarrek

Written and directed by Ben Wheatley

IN THE EARTH is a new psychological horror thriller that works disturbingly well on two distinct fronts.

Firstly, it tells a highly timely tale of a world of the not too distant future that has been ravaged by a deadly and unstoppable virus (sound eerily familiar?).

Secondly, the film taps into well worn horror genre troupes - characters venture off into the untamed woods and wild, during which time supernatural and unexplained occurrences threaten their livelihoods - and does something refreshingly sinister and chillingly atmospheric with them.  

Much of IN THE EARTH feels like well worn territory, but it's a testament to writer/director Ben Wheatley (who previous to this made the very different and very wrongheaded remake of Hitchcock's REBECCA) and how much undulating and ominous dread he generates using a lean and spare approach.  His film sometimes veers into self-indulgent territory when it comes to avant garde technique (his trippy visuals and out-there stylistic flourishes can frequently and obtrusively overwhelm everything else) and its latter half doesn't come together as well as its first, but as a purely visceral work it's an impressive nerve crusher, to be sure. 

IN THE EARTH introduces us to a world plagued by a massive pandemic that has decimated its way through most of the population, leaving what's left of the scientists struggling to piece together what clues they have as to the virus' origins and a potential cure.  At a well secluded government controlled outpost/research station that resides deep in the forest arrives scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry), who is sent to this area just outside of Bristol to help with the  research of his ex-wife in Olivia (Hayley Squires) regarding the local crops (the woodland area here around the center has remained curiously lush and bountiful since the world went haywire).  The opening sequences may strike some viewers rather hard, with Martin having to mask up and pass a series of special quarantine protocols and tests before being allowed entry and passage (COVID parallels abound here).  He passes with flying colors and is granted access to Olivia and her camp, where she is studying the effects of boasting crop efficiency. 

With the assistance of a tracker/guide named Alma (Ellora Torchia), Martin makes his way towards Olivia's research station, but on one fateful day both he and Alma wake up at their camp site to discover that their belongings have been ransacked and with vital gear being taken, like Martin's hiking boots.  Forced to trek barefoot through the dense forest is treacherous, to say the least, but Martin and Alma soldier on, bound and determined to get to their shared destination.  Unfortunately, Martin hellishly injures his foot along the way, and with a massive laceration that requires medical attention the pair realize that they need help of some kind.  Help does come in the form of Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a local man that offers them safe refuge at his own camp nearby.  Not only does he tend to Martin's worrisome foot wound, but he also offers him and clothing, shelter, water, and food.  Soon after eating what's provided, though, Martin and Alma begin to feel light headed and subsequently pass out.  They are then greeted with the startling realization that Zach is most definitely not the kindly hermit that they initially thought, especially when his behavior gets increasingly erratic and it becomes clear that this lunatic will never let them leave.   

 

 

IN THE EARTH really begins to pick up steam and builds nail biting tension with the appearance of the strange, but deeply unhinged Zach, whose motives for doing what he does to Martin and Alma are not made explicitly clear from the get-go, but once revealed - which, without spoiling anything, delves into local supernatural folklore - the pair of hikers fully realize the gravity of their dire situation: It's not just the pandemic and the dangerous outdoor elements that can do them in, but also this homicidal coot.  Clearly, the pandemic allegories presented here are pretty unmistakable, with particular emphasis on the nature and pressures of isolation far apart from other people and how that psychologically weighs heavily on people trying to cope.  Wheatley takes it a few more ghastly steps forward in this film: Poor Martin and Alama are both on their own and isolated from most of the civilized world, but in the process they also have to fend themselves off (while in various intoxicated and physically incapacitated states) from this madman that refuses to let them go.  Shearsmith's performance is quietly disturbing in the way that he makes this unhinged antagonist so polite and soft spoken in his mannerisms, which only masks his nightmarish heat of darkness lurking beneath. 

Wheatley is clearly working on a cheaper budget and with less resources than he did with his last aforementioned film, but it's his economical approach to IN THE EARTH - in terms of its limited settings, characters, and production values/locations - that kind of makes the whole affair that much creepier.  The wider shadow of a global pandemic that threatens humanity with permanent extinction is undeniably epic in scope, but Wheatley uses that as merely a framing demise for the more intimate shop of horrors that's being perpetrated on Martin and Alma.  In many respects, IN THE EARTH begins by leaning into sci-fi, but then segues into an wilderness exploration film that further morphs into survival/slasher horror and finally arrives at something that would be best described as...otherworldly.  There are a lot of ingredients that Wheatley tries to throw in here, but for the most part IN THE EARTH combines them all with relative smoothness.  The film delivers an obligatory level of gore and mayhem that, to be fair, is expected by audiences going in, but what worked best for me here was how much anxiety jangling suspense the director is able to conjure with his his less-is-more approach.  As the characters become tormented by forces from, shall we say, multiple planes of existence it becomes genuinely terrifying to endure.   

One of the issues, however, with IN THE EARTH is the abstract imagery and visual choices that Wheatley utilizes here; it's paradoxically a source of the film's greatest strength and weakness.  There's some truly punishing and eye fatiguing editorial tricks, bombastic sound design, psychedelic imagery, head spinning camera tricks, and disorienting strobe effects that are undoubtedly being used here for the purposes of relaying the strange occurrences that are happening around and to these characters, and at times it makes IN THE EARTH an unstoppably intense experience.  There are times, though, when these abstract creative methods are simply hard to endure for viewers (I have a fairly tough stomach for just about anything that films throw my way, but even I'll concede that Wheatley's choices made me look away from the screen at times for a much needed time out for my eyes).  I also think that as the film careens towards a would-be shocking finale - and hints towards theories of the psychic links between nature and man and its further ties to paganism - I was starting to mentally check out.  IN THE EARTH doesn't end as strongly as it thinks it does, and the haunting ambiguities left in the film's wake are more disappointingly confusing than they are mysteriously enthralling. 

Still, Wheatley has made a film here that is like a blunt force instrument on the senses.  I can't say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of sitting through it (and it's not one that will warrant repeat viewings for me in the future), but it remains a brutally macabre and memorably efficient piece of low-budget horror filmmaking, and one that places special prominence on an overall mood of paralyzing unease.  IN THE EARTH is one of those types of genre films that has a glorious setup that's kind of undone by its execution in the very late stages, but I was taken in with the overarching journey that Wheatley unleashes here.  Granted, he unleashes with maybe too much pretentious vengeance, but it remains a far cry better than the usual horror/thriller drivel we've given as of late.  

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