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FEATURING: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, ,
PLOT: During a pandemic, a park ranger guides a young scientist to join up with a lone biologist conducting an experiment deep in the forest, but an ancient spirit may be stirring.
COMMENTS: It seems that a forest has grown over that old Field in England through the centuries, but ancient necromantic and alchemical evils still have their roots deeply embedded there. Locals talk of the legend of the pagan demigod “Parnang Fegg,” who may haunt the woods into which Martin and Alma venture in search of the reclusive Dr. Wendle. As they penetrate deeper into the forest, the scary-enough realities of their pandemic-ridden civilization are overrun by cthonic horrors. Is the evil caused by the vengeful forest deity; by a misunderstood alien biology, as Dr. Wendle suggests; or is it merely a group madness stemming from the local fungi that jet their spores into the atmosphere?
“I wouldn’t try to make any logical sense of it,” cautions Dr. Wendle. Indeed, In the Earth isn’t built around logical explanations, or even around its characters. Instead, everything exists for the sake of three intense and immersive psychedelic montages—all flash and bang, sound and light—evoking horrors both ancient and current. Protagonist Martin grounds the film in bodily insecurity; he’s out-of-shape due to lack of exercise during quarantine, and suffering from a nasty recurrent case of ringworm, too. As the film goes on, characters will suffer gruesome injuries, dwelt on in sickening closeups—anyone with a foot trauma phobia may want to avoid this one. But when the spore mist fills the air, the horrors migrate from the body to the mind.
Despite the minimalist four-characters-in-a-forest setup, In the Earth will play best in theaters; you need that big screen and surround sound for the complete experience. It all starts with the sound design, embedded in the rustling forest and anchored by another superb Clint Mansell score, all highlighted by a disturbing electronic cacophony played from the speakers hooked up to the trees. (The soundtrack can get startlingly abrasive, but it always puts you right in the middle of the film’s nightmares: it can be hard to distinguish the diegetic effects from sonic hallucinations added in post-production.) Then the visuals come on: fast cuts of experimental effects, mushrooms and dandelions bent by fish-eye lenses, red dyes spreading through oil, shots that look like you’re staring right through the floaters in your retina and the veins in your eyelids as bright light penetrates your eyeballs. Shadowy figures flash for milliseconds in the strobe lights. They aren’t being overcautious with that epilepsy warning, folks. I’d predict this one will end up as a minor drug culture favorite.
Wheatley conceived and wrote In the Earth soon after the pandemic hit, and shot it even faster (a fifteen day shooting schedule was all that was required). Still, it doesn’t feel rushed so much as in-the-moment. There is a certain refreshing humility to In the Earth—this is not a lavish, elaborately-planned-out multi-million dollar spectacle, but something the director has made out of necessity, adapting to circumstance. He made it because he has to make movies with whatever resources are available; if Covid-19 has temporarily shut down the studios, he’ll take his camera and a skeleton crew out to the woods. Good for him.
My only reservation is that In the Earth feels a little too much like an update of A Field in England, with flashier color trips and an overlay of pandemic anxiety, but minus the eccentric feel and esoteric setting. In the Earth isn’t entirely new ground for Ben Wheatley, but it taps into the zeitgeist and delivers its payload of cosmic/folk/body/WTF horror with spiffy efficiency. If you’re a reader of this site, there’s an excellent chance that it’s right in your wheelhouse. After all, check out a small but representative sample of negative IMDB reviews: “Beyond weird and horrible”; “i have no idea what it was about”; “makes me feel like I should’ve taken acid before going to the film so I could understand what was going on.” If those quotes don’t get you excited to check this one out, I don’t know what will.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Wheatley’s always been most effective prowling around in the murky depths of the subconscious, and ‘In the Earth’ — which is raw and weird and deeply unsettling, like a fungus found growing in some long-ignored abscess — well, this piece of work has his fingerprints all over it.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (contemporaneous)