Synopsis – As the world searches for a cure to a disastrous virus, a scientist and park scout venture deep in the forest for a routine equipment run.
My Take – There is no doubt about the fact that Ben Wheatley is one of the most innovative and distinctive contemporary British filmmakers working currently.
Though he possess an increasingly diverse filmography which includes films ranging from a psychological horror thriller called Kill List to the J.G. Ballard adaptation dud called High Rise to the hilariously enjoyable Tarantino inspired shoot em-up called Free Fire, to last year’s bland remake of Hitchcock‘s Rebecca, his every release comes with a precedent of delivering on unseen wackiness and out-there genre excursion.
A perfect example of this being that his next scheduled directorial is the sequel to the Jason Statham vs prehistoric giant-shark blockbuster, The Meg. Hence it was enticing to know that filmmaker Wheatley had wrote/filmed a pandemic-inspired psychedelic horror film over 15 days in the woods last year to cope with the current global situation and do something productive with his time.
Marking his return to low-budget horror film roots, here he employs psychedelic atmospheres, a grungy look, and a psychological/nightmarish template reminiscent of our current times. And while, the film, at first, plays out like a standard slasher film for a major chunk of its run-time, that is until, in classic Ben Wheatley fashion, it enters into an unexpected horror territory filled with visuals and sounds that provides its own distinct take on the theory of the old world coming back to bite us.
But while the striking visuals, gory imagery, and a psychedelic undertone may intrigue gore fans especially, the film is unfortunately also backed by a script that makes the whole experience suffer. Mainly as the material accompanying the psychedelic reverie isn’t as suggestive as it wants to be, and prefers just throwing ideas, theories, and folk tales around, that is until it goes off the rails in the final act, never finding an answer to the all questions it set up.
Set during a deadly unnamed pandemic that is ravaging the world, the story follows Dr Martin Lowery (Joel Fry), who after been isolated for months arrives at research hub in the forest, to take off an mission with Alma (Ellora Torchia), a park ranger, into the forest to meet fellow scientist and his former employer, Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires). Cut off for months, Dr. Wendle, went deep into the woods to research ways to make crop growth more efficient, using her theory of how all the trees in a forest are connected, like one gigantic brain.
However, when a nighttime attack leaves them both injured, shoe-less, and introduces them to Zach (Reece Shearsmith), who has been living off the grid, it puts them on a path that blurs the lines between science and the myth of Parnag Fegg, the Spirit of the Woods.
Here, director Wheatley handles the early setup deliberately, and imbues the visual language with more spookiness to heighten the dread, especially by making Bird calls in the forest mimic human screams. And his use of paranoia and psychedelic touches seem to work in a way. For example, how Martin develops a mysterious rash that looks like the circular gap in a stone that looks like a portal, the gaping maw of an abandoned tent deep in the forest, and the horrendous gash on Martin’s foot, spurting blood.
Like most cosmic horror films the film thrives on the tension caused by the unexpected overlaps caused by folklore and mythology on one side, and inflexible belief in scientific evidence, data, and demonstrable patterns on the other. To drive this, director Wheatley creates tension through mystery, and litters the plot with prickly details that snag Martin and Alma like stinging nettles, marking them as trespassers in this place.
Unfortunately, the script does not match the film’s ambition of a nightmare while searching for truth, as it ends up with more questions than answers. With the supernatural element feeling a bit too convoluted and extraneous to be fully satisfying. Also 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. Even the psychedelic effect end up affecting the dialogue, going full exposition for stretches and just clunky at times. The psychedelic visuals become oppressive, too, as does Clint Mansell’s otherwise ingeniously ambient, noise-enhanced score.
Performances wise, both Hayley Squires and Reece Shearsmith are effective, while Joel Fry sells Martin’s forbearing character well. However it is Ellora Torchia‘s performance which is the most committed and engaging of the lot. In smaller roles, John Hollingworth and Mark Monero are also effective. On the whole, ‘In the Earth’ is an uneven yet trippy and spellbinding psychedelic horror film with a stylized sensory overload.
Directed – Ben Wheatley
Rated – R
Run Time – 107 minutes