IN THE EARTH
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 JarrekWritten 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.
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
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.
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.