Filmed over the course of fifteen days during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ben Wheatley’s new film “In the Earth” is a micro-budget chiller with the anxieties of our current locked-down society sewn within its fabric. Coming off last year’s fun yet imperfect “Rebecca”, Wheatley returns to the dark and gnarly storytelling he cut his filmmaking teeth on. And at a time when so many are burned out from quarantining and itching to get out of the house, “In the Earth” may leave you second guessing that impulse.
Despite the obvious constraints of filming during a pandemic, “In the Earth” doesn’t deserve to be simply tagged as a ‘COVID movie’ the way some others do. None of the limitations show up on-screen which is quite an accomplishment. Even better, nothing about it feels like genre rehash. Wheatley takes several rather familiar horror ingredients (a creepy forest setting, ominous fog, etc.) and then twists them to fit into his unsettling and occasionally macabre mold.
The film opens with science specialist Martin Lowery (Joel Frey) arriving at the Gantalow Lodge which has been turned into a research site. He’s there to check on a friend and former colleague Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires). She came to the nature reserve to study the brain-like mycorrhizal network of roots believed to control the entire forest, but he hasn’t heard from her in months. As most of us are familiar with, Martin is immediately ushered through a series of safety and decontamination protocols. Blood tests and urine samples frame this is a much more severe pandemic than ours. But other touches (masks, gloves, hand sanitizer) seem plucked right out of our current climate.
Everyone at the lodge comes across as exhausted and drained, worn down by the isolation and ready for some semblance of normalcy (sound familiar?). Martin is no different. In fact we learn this is his first time outside in four months. So they all go through their testing routines with a detached sense of obligation. They passionlessly discuss the pandemic, Martin’s work, and even a local folktale about about a creepy forest entity called Parnag Fegg. During these early scenes Martin is introduced to Alma (Ellora Torchia), a park ranger who will guide him on the two-day walk to Olivia’s remote camp.
Early the next morning Martin and Alma begin their long and soon-to-be terrifying trek. Wheatley sets his audience up as an observant tag-along, listening in on their small-talk and shadowing the two as they make their way through the woods. Sometimes DP Nick Gillespie’s camera lurks several yards away, taking in more of their surroundings and slyly creating a sense of dread for what’s to come. Wheatley’s crafty visuals bring a subtly sinister quality to the forest especially when they set up camp after the first day’s walk. Tall trees creaking in the wind like old bones, indiscernible howls in the night – it’s all really effective. And the suspense ramps up even more once Martin and Alma meet a mysterious park squatter named Zach (Reece Shearsmith).
It would be a major disservice to go much further and not because there is a lot of plot to spoil. It’s more about experiencing what the characters experience and the murky revelations we get once Wheatley’s loose-fitting puzzle pieces start coming together. It all plays out like a wicked blend of horror sub-genres, from the sadistic splashes of gruesome body horror to the wild psychedelic mind-screw of the final 15 minutes. That’s where Wheatley starts mixing mysticism, technology, and science into one bizarre and somewhat macabre stew. And through it all Clint Mansell’s twisted synthesized score keeps things slightly off-kilter and us constantly on edge.
“People get a bit funny in the woods sometimes.” That early line from a doctor back at the lodge turns out to be some pretty meaty foreshadowing. With “In the Earth” Ben Wheatley and his small but able cast and crew take that idea and run with it. The result is a movie full of unease; with moments that will make you squirm, and enough confidence to rely on its material rather than cheap scares. It doesn’t all come together in the clearest or cleanest way which manages to be both frustrating and strangely fascinating. Still the movie represents a fresh slice of horror which is something the well-traveled genre is always in need of. “In the Earth” premieres in theaters April 16th.
VERDICT – 4 STARS