Ben Wheatley makes a brilliant comeback with In The Earth—an eye-popping and delightfully bizarre woodland horror that the squeamish might want to avoid.
There’s a moment in director Ben Wheatley’s masterful 2013 Civil War freak-out A Field in England that I have not been able to shake since first viewing. After being invited into the tent of Michael Smiley’s snake-oil shaman, the blood-curdling screams of Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) obliterate the screen. Then, in imperceptible slow-motion, he emerges with his face set in a grin of pure malice. It’s a moment of pure folk-tale chilliness, any real sense of narrative closure being obliterated in favour of the mud-thick atmosphere.
With In The Earth, Wheatley has found himself right back in this mode—although to call it a return to form would be a disservice to his wildly eclectic and elusive style. After last year’s Rebecca, a perfectly competent display case for Du Maurier’s bulletproof story, many were doubtless concerned that perhaps Wheatley was heading off down an unsatisfying path: Rebecca was sumptuously managed, but seemed a little too mannered for its own good. Anyhow, what with last year’s disruptions (Wheatley was all set to direct the sequel to 2018’s Tomb Raider until the pandemic ruined plans: he and regular writing partner Amy Jump have since been replaced), he has plunged his hands into the unwholesome British soil and unearthed a treasure trove of rural queasiness.
Joel Fry stars as Martin Lowery, a scientist heading out to meet an old colleague to help out on a research project on “mycorrhizae”. (As it’s briefly explained in the film, these fungal growths exist beneath the forest floor, and may connect with their habitats in deeper ways than meets the eye.) The forest is treacherous and bewildering to visitors, so he is paired with ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) for the two-day journey; not only does the forest limit their options to travelling by foot, but there are inevitable problems with phone signal and GPS.
So, it is surprise to nobody when the trip throws up some hidden obstacles. Firstly, an ominous painting at the lodge where Martin completes a preliminary check-in leads to an explanation of ancient traditions around this woodland site—in particular, a central standing stone and a female spirit referred to as “Parnag Fegg”. Also, there is a very real embodiment of terror in a mysterious stranger called Zach (Shearsmith, working with Wheatley once again) whom the pair bump into. Seeming kindly enough, he offers his help, but is more elusive when it comes to the reason that he is living away from civilisation in this apparently controlled area. The casting alone should begin to ring alarm bells immediately.
What’s so astonishing about In the Earth is that it opens with that heart-sinking premise, a ‘pandemic horror’, which could have set the tone for mixed efforts like last year’s Michael Bay-produced thriller Songbird. Nonetheless, Wheatley understands the struggles of representing such an all-encompassing event on-screen; characters make reference to structural and personal effects of COVID-19, but the film gladly avoids mining the situation for a grand statement—or even, as the genre could have allowed, trying to find a veiled metaphor for the invisible threat. Instead, we get topical themes of connection and contact, with Wheatley’s warped vision quickly bringing on an eye-popping leap into psychedelia, as if the fear and unknowability of the past 15 months have transcended boundaries of perception. Not since Tony Conrad’s 1966 experimental film The Flicker has a photosensitive epilepsy warning been so relentlessly fulfilled.
And the ideas around connection and contact are where the topical resonances really set in. Over lockdown, I personally became a little obsessed with Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu: the months of being stuck inside stretching ahead of me, I loved the beauty his films conjured from the simplicity of domestic life. In the Earth, on the other hand, produces the equal and opposite reaction, plunging straight into the mossy undergrowth. The central conceit of this all-connecting organism—whether it’s a fungus, a woodland spirit, an imagined projection or all of the above—provokes some fascinating debates, and there’s a visual fixation on burial and rebirth.
That said, it’s as a spectacle that In The Earth truly excels: this is one for the big screen and the even bigger sound system. Plaudits must certainly go to cinematographer Nick Gillespie, whose super-wide 2.39:1 framing seems to envelop the viewer entirely in his fairy-tale spell. The forest is a location positively pregnant with association, which the film’s focus on mists and bursting puffballs does nothing to disallow. Rather than giving the setting a feeling of other-worldliness, though, all of these symbolic moments simply heighten the real-world textures on show. Clint Mansell’s score, meanwhile, almost goes the other way: spooky, jagged electronic sounds that give even the most innocuous early scene a genre-inflected punch. This isn’t a film for the faint of heart, by the way. Anyone familiar with Wheatley’s back catalogue will be aware that the director isn’t afraid of some supremely effective and tactile gore effects, and one sequence in particular will do for axes what Kill List did for hammers.
It’s in these intense and abstract moments where the film unhooks from the screen and burrows directly into your cerebral cortex, giving the kind of experience that wordlessly reminds you of the spectral power only provided by the cinema. Zach has a speech in his tent about photography being like “magic”, for instance, and the woodland experiments conducted by scientist Olivia (Hayley Squires) often make use of floodlights and hypnotically large speakers. Perhaps even reviews such as this are pointless, because the film’s own allusive argument for cinema as its own brand of communication is strong enough. Even if not read in the light of the pandemic, these ideas are teased out beautifully in the construction of In The Earth, which uses all aspects of the medium at its disposal, and seeing Wheatley pull off something as simultaneously ambitious and frivolously madcap as this is royally satisfying.
Genre fans are sure to be sated by the dazzling visuals and the director’s traditional brand of horror leavened by off-beat, dry humour. Beyond this, though, the unclassifiably strange atmosphere has to be seen to be believed, with cracking performances (especially Shearsmith’s) doing well to sell the weirdness. If this is how Wheatley winds down after a brief foray into studio filmmaking, I can’t wait to see what he does after Meg 2: The Trench. (Don’t ask.)
In The Earth was released in cinemas on 18 June.
Words by Max King
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