In the Earth, the new film from Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Dr. Who), begins with images all to familiar images of people in masks and hazmat suits. Here, as in real life, the world is in the grip of a pandemic. It’s against this backdrop that Martin Lowery (Joel Fry, Silent Night) arrives at a vacation lodge repurposed as a research facility. He’s there to try to find Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires, In Fabric) a scientist who went missing in the surrounding forest.
With Alma (Ellora Torchia, Midsommar, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands), one of the park rangers as a guide he ventures into the woods. It doesn’t take long before they’re attacked in their sleep and their shoes stolen. They’re found by Zach (Reece Shearsmith, Borley Rectory, The League of Gentlemen) who has been illegally living in the woods. He offers to help, but he has his own agenda. One that involves the spirit of a long dead Necromancer.
With In the Earth, Wheatley takes a step back from more recent films such as Rebecca and Free Fire and returns to the folk horror of Kill List and A Field in England. The film starts out talking about pandemics and networks of mycorrhizal fungi connecting the forest’s plant life. But it quickly turns to the supernatural, religion, communicating with spirits via rituals and technology and a copy of Malleus Maleficarum, “The Hammer of the Witches”.
If this sounds a bit mental, that’s because it is. In the Earth’s plot takes cues from films as diverse as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Event Horizon and John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. Then it infuses them with classic British science fiction/horror stylings of the Quatermass films.
The result is a film that certainly held my attention even if at times it was hard to figure out just what was going on. At points I was unsure if Wheatley knew what was going on, or if there even was an actual plot or just some ideas loosely strung together.
Cinematographer Nick Gillespie (The Ghoul, Tank 432) helps to hold things together with some incredibly trippy and disorienting camerawork. Whether the result of spirits or the effect of mushroom spores the cinematography conveys its effects brilliantly and beautifully. For a film shot in just fifteen days, In the Earth looks amazing, and that combined with Clint Mansell’s (Moon, Ghost in the Shell) make an almost hypnotic combination that must have played even better on the big screen.
I do wish they had tied the pandemic in with the rest of the plot better. It seems a waste, if not a bit of a cheat, to set it up and then pretty much ignore it once we get into the woods. But then, In the Earth seems to be more concerned with sights, sounds and ideas more than solid plotting. The sense of confusion being an intentional reflection of the characters’ state of mind. And on that level it certainly succeeds.
If you liked Wheatley’s Kill List and A Field in England, or Philip Gelatt’s They Remain then In the Earth should appeal to you. But if you need to have all the answers and everything explained by the time the credits roll you may feel frustrated. While I think Wheatley was a little to vague in a couple of places, overall I found it an enjoyable exercise in folk horror weirdness.
Neon has released In the Earth to streaming platforms, you can check the film’s website for more details. There’s no mention of a physical release, but hopefully there will eventually be a Blu Ray release.