by Jordan King
If ever there were a director whose cinematic response to the current pandemic we’re living through was desperately wanted, it may just be Ben Wheatley. Having flexed his elemental folk-horror muscles once before with the spellbinding A Field In England, and having demonstrated a knack for creating devilishly intriguing works with a gonzo get-up-and-go energy like Free Fire and Kill List, the challenge of writing, directing, editing, and shooting a COVID-inspired horror during lockdown and in a mere fifteen days is the kind which only Wheatley could meet and meet so masterfully.
Filmed with a skeleton crew, a threadbare budget, and in a single location (albeit one which has the effect of disorienting any sense of time and place – forests and horror are simply meant to be), In The Earth is the result of a visionary filmmaker taking his pandemic anxiety and channelling it into a stream of ever-intensifying terror for our viewing pleasure.
Joel Fry stars as Martin Lowery, a doctor embarking on a journey to reach a research facility deep in the heart of the Arboreal Forest as a pandemic threatens to ravage humanity. With early scenes showing Lowery go through rigorous sanitation checks and talk of ‘lockdown’, ‘quarantine’, and ‘isolation’, our situation in a world adjacent to the reality we currently face is overt. As is the way with the best of the horror genre however, In The Earth seeks not to mimic or replicate the world outside our windows, but invariably and intelligently does reflect it and respond to it, something Wheatley was acutely aware of as he shot the film.
Accompanied by level-headed park scout Alma (Ellora Torchia), Lowery begins the two-day trek to reach Hub ATU327A. Before long however, the thick trees make murky the intrepid duo’s minds and sense of direction, and as night falls, a frenzied attack shot in flashes of light and flurries of movement leave Martin and Alma shoeless and shaken. When they awake, they run into Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a man living off the grid who kindly offers them shoes, sustenance, and an insight into his very unique relationship with the folkloric forest that surrounds them.
It would not be a spoiler to say that Zach is not at all who he initially seems, as the two golden rules of British horror are 1) Don’t trust Reece Shearsmith, and 2) Really don’t trust Reece Shearsmith in a Ben Wheatley film, but surely enough, Zach has his own motivations for keeping Martin and Alma exactly where they are. Whilst Fry and Torchia hold their own well enough as the young doctor with skeletons in his closet and plucky scout respectively, it is Shearsmith, the ever-underestimated but always magnificent Shearsmith who steals the show. His delusional man-of-the-woods Zach would be almost comically cuckoo were it not for Shearsmith’s ability to play the truth of his characters even when they are born from the most outwardly ludicrous notions and archetypes. There’s something in his plain-spoken manner and focused eyes that begs to be recognised and reasoned with even when rationality has long since left the room, and amidst a plot and setting that is deliberately sparsely detailed, he dominates the frame with righteous ease. When he is let loose in full axe-swinging splendour though, the spectacle and sinister beauty of it all calls to mind those iconic Leatherface chainsaw swings against the sunlight at the end of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
As Martin and Alma find themselves running for their lives they find the facility they’ve been looking for, manned solo by Zach’s ex-wife Dr Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires). As Dr Wendle’s scientific endeavours have become entangled and entrenched in an obsession with an ancient book of witchcraft, a coincidental but unmistakable snapback at QAnon conspiracism and the like, the trippiness and elemental hippiness of Wheatley’s work reveals itself in a caustic convalescence of the occult, soundsystems, and pseudoscience that makes an unholy Cerberus of Annihilation, Midsommar, and A Field in England.
On a technical level, the film is just as remarkable as its batshit plot and the circumstances surrounding its creation. Clint Mansell contributes a sublime score, one which falls squarely somewhere in the liminal space between ethereal beauty and synthesised satanic invocation. FUN FACT: Mansell collaborated with literal plants, recording their response to his voice using some unholy equipment of some sort. And as for the cinematography of DoP Nick Gillespie, the film has an apocalyptic, gnarly luminescence that would leave Panos Cosmatos pale-faced. When the film truly goes off the deep end into the sort of experimental territory that Wheatley admitted in a post-screening Q&A would likely have been unapproved on a wide theatrical release, layering shots and sounds and abstract ideas in a hypnotic haze of hellish imagery, it becomes apparent that what started as a way to stave off Lockdown lethargy has evolved into something of a minor masterpiece.
Proving Wheatley to be a master of economic horror filmmaking, In The Earth is an unnerving, unforgettable descent into the heart of darkness that may well leave viewers thankful for being holed up indoors.
In The Earth played as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021!