A deadly virus has ravaged the world and mankind is struggling to develop a cure, forcing worldwide quarantine procedures and a newfound focus on hygiene and safety. For a split second, you probably thought I was simply referring to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but this is in fact the simple but frighteningly familiar concept driving Ben Wheatley’s newest feature In the Earth.
The film follows Martin Lowery (played by Joel Fry), a scientist sent to a government-controlled research outpost in an attempt to locate an old spark and investigate the area’s sudden increase in crop efficiency. Believed to be a possible result of potent mycorrhiza, Lowery is assisted by knowledgeable guide Alma (Ellora Torchia) and journeys into this fertile forest area only to find something far more sinister lurking in these woods.
Early into In the Earth, the viewer gets the distinct feeling it won’t be ‘normal’ viewing. The opening 20 minutes or so are somewhat tranquil but still manage to evoke the same fear of isolation that The Blair Witch Project did 22 years prior. Ominous drones and moans echo throughout the film’s forgotten woodland and the wildlife chatter among the treetops like some sort of ambiguous heed for warning. Couple that with lingering shots of creepy monoliths and an opening warning regarding photosensitive epilepsy and, thankfully, it won’t be long until you are feeling that signature sense of unease that Wheatley has made an impressive career out of with work like High Rise and Kill List.
Almost aimlessly, Martin and Alma wander this green dystopia searching for any remaining remnants of Martin’s ex-lover Olivia (Hayley Squires). With the light fading, both decide to set up camp – triggering a disorientating attack from something in the darkness that leaves them barefoot and unsettled. When Martin seriously injures his foot on the rigid bed of this forest, we meet Zach (played by the brilliant, almost unrecognizable Reece Shearsmith).
The section is when In the Earth is at its riveting best. Zach seems like a welcoming hermit who has become visibly unhinged by his time living in this forest. Yet, his presence brings hope to both Martin and Alma as he proclaims he is not alone in this forest. Shearsmith is phenomenal and delivers the film’s standout performance. In fact, it isn’t really until Zach makes his glorious entrance that things shake up a bit. While both Fry and Torchia give decent, placid performances, let’s be honest – this is a Ben Wheatley movie and the last thing we expect is ‘decent’ or ‘placid’ from Wheatley’s work.
Zach almost acts as an introduction to what Wheatley is really striving for which is a hallucinatory horror experience that recalls his much-revered 2013 psychological horror A Field in England. Trippy visuals and enigmatic fear by way of Hitchcockian or Cronenbergian execution is the meal of the day here and Wheatley executes it confidently with Shearsmith’s Zach acting as the obvious focal point. With every line delivery, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify whether Zach is being genuinely empathetic towards Martin and Alma or if he is simply a victim of isolation twisting his attitude and emotion into a Jekyll and Hyde-like persona. It is captivating stuff that pushes In the Earth’s safe beginnings into shocking territory.
Around the 40-minute mark is where In the Earth kicks into a higher gear with Wheatley showcasing his trademark visual flair and ability to create pulsating fear. A game of cat and mouse ensues and with it comes kaleidoscopic visuals, some gnarly bloodshed and near pitch-perfect atmosphere and dread that relies on audio sensory overload as much as visual intensity to achieve its sinister goal.
The truth is; when In the Earth is good, its really goddamn good. At that forty-minute mark, it feels like John Carpenter’s Halloween spoon-fed magic mushrooms a la Ken Russell’s Altered States. It’s extremely entertaining, with Wheatley orchestrating a fascinating dive into hallucinatory, slasher movie territory I didn’t entirely expect.
Here’s the problem though – the introduction of Olivia, which brings a shift in style and proceedings and ultimately, not for the better. For one thing, returning Wheatley collaborator Squires’ performance is unimpressive – with her constant wide-eyed glare and emotionless delivery of every syllable of dialogue baffling considering everything that came before it was so meticulously crafted.
Echoing the same beliefs as Zach regarding this forest and the strange happenings it creates, Olivia has set up her own electronic gig space to communicate with the green dystopia around her. The result is Brian Eno-inspired ambient DJ sets and wide-eyed glares that fall flat and just come across as silly. Nonsensical info-dumping then follows and it becomes glaringly obvious that the creepy slasher stuff is all but gone forever which is a damn shame.
From there, the movie just plods along. Although some nice twists and turns peek their heads out from behind the trees, it simply isn’t enough to distract from the film’s wasted potential. In the Earth just becomes an amalgamation of convoluted experimentation with the element of fear and terror removed entirely. It’s especially unsatisfying given how Wheatley’s A Field in England managed to balance genre thrills and surrealism so effectively eight years earlier.
As such, despite its promising start, In the Earth winds up feeling like a disappointment. I admire Wheatley’s desire to challenge the viewer, but this was a real Jekyll and Hyde experience – one part of it was charming and calculated, the other was plain hideous.