Director Ben Wheatley delivers us a new pandemic-inspired horror film with In the Earth.
Set amid a deadly virus ravaging the world, Dr Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) takes off on a mission to reach a research hub in a boreal forest. Guided by park scout Alma (Ellora Torchia) through the journey, a nighttime attack leaves both injured, covered in bruises, and shoeless. When the pair runs into Zach (Reece Shearsmith), living off the grid, they accept his help but do not know his exact intentions. As they find out the truth about Zach, the path to get out of the forest begins to fade swiftly, as the lines between science and myth blur before them.
To cope with the current global situation and do something productive with his time, Wheatley decided to make a film in the woods over a fifteen-day shoot. He employs well on a stylistic level in his filmmaking, most notably in his films Free Fire (2016) and A Field in England (2013). In the Earth is no exception. The director uses psychedelic atmospheres, a grungy look, and a psychological/nightmarish element reminiscent of our current times to return to his low-budget horror film roots after his latest film, Rebecca (2020), missed the mark.
The pandemic as a plot device or style technique has been used quite a lot recently; in most cases, it does not work and is getting a bit tiresome and repetitive. Films that feature great examples of pandemic storylines include Rob Savage’s Host (2020) and Iuli Gerbase’s The Pink Cloud (2021). Unfortunately, In the Earth does not have anything new to say about the mental state and reality we live in.
On a positive note, Wheatley’s use of paranoia and psychedelic touches does work in a way. Its minimalist brush hangs high thanks to the thrills it delivers. It takes inspiration and references from other horror films like Annihilation (2018), Mandy (2018), Midsommar (2019), and 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), but those references go both ways and either help or worsen the movie.
One of the problems this film has is that the characters are not engaging or fully developed to care about them completely. Narratively and script-wise, it has many faults. Stories about two innocent strangers going into the woods to then find madness is nothing new. It is a bit obvious where the film is going with that aspect, and it does not hide it well, considering all the examples we have been given over the years. Where things differ here is in the execution. Wheatley’s use of violent imagery (shot in a way where you can feel the character’s pain) helps the film lift itself from a repeated storyline.
In the Earth has striking visuals, gory imagery, and a psychedelic undertone that may intrigue people to watch it, but it has a script that makes the film suffer. The script does not match the film’s ambition of a nightmare while searching for truth. You end up with more questions than answers, and with a movie like this, it does not work in its favour. It is hard to look away from this film; it is trippy, spellbinding, and uneven. With all its problems, you still want to know what happens even though most of the film’s choices might be a bit obvious.
Conceived, written, and produced in quarantine.