Sundance has been chock-a-block with films exploring our collective anxieties and traumas surrounding the COVID-19 crisis — from the harrowing accounts out of China from the early days of the virus in In the Same Breath to Homeroom’s chronicle of lost youth and activism in the face of the pandemic, it’s clear we’ve got a lot of shit to work out. For Ben Wheatley, though, his first instinct on Day 1 of lockdown was to head out to the woods with some of his friends and turn the isolation and confusion into Lovecraftian folk horror. The result, In the Earth, may not be one of his best, but it’s a welcome palate cleanser after the atrocities he’s directed recently (looking at you, Rebecca remake).
The film’s opening title card comes to us in throwback ‘70s giallo style, copyright notice under the title and all, letting us know we’re deep in old-school British folk horror mode of a kind with The Wicker Man. But this time, the concerns are more subtextually tied to the mask-wearing, hand-sanitizing paranoia of our times: a mysterious plague lures Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) to a research site deep in the Arboreal Forest, in the hopes of reuniting with Dr. Wendle (Hayley Squires), an old friend and fellow researcher who hasn’t reported back in months. It’s a long, arduous trek that requires the aid of park ranger Alma (Elloria Torchia), both of whom are quickly set upon by Zac (Reece Shearsmith), a vagrant who lives in the woods and has a mysterious connection to the psychedelic forces at play in the forest.
What follows is a fog-shrouded descent into madness that feels much more like Wheatley’s wheelhouse than his slicker genre thrillers like Free Fire and High Rise. Some joke that this one is 2 Field 2 England, and the comparisons aren’t too far afield: Shearsmith spilling blood over the English grass, the thin veneer of humanity swallowed up by more indecipherably hostile natural forces.
By the time Martin and Alma run into Zac, the second act turns into an erstwhile hostage thriller, as they struggle to escape from an axe-wielding madman committed to using them for Midsommar offerings to a mysterious force existing in the Earth (hey, that’s the name of the movie!). These moments are the film’s most effective, particularly one literally-toe-curling sequence of torture that promises the best of Wheatley’s command of tension; it’s familiar, but it works, and he knows how to use those simple tools of tension well.
It’s when we pass him and reunite with Squires, and we learn a bit more about the mysterious web of interconnected phenomena that is informing the eldritch horrors, that In the Earth pumps the brakes on its slowly-ratcheting tension and succumbs to schlocky B-movie exposition. It’s here that Wheatley starts to lose focus, more concerned with trying to explain what’s going on than he should be, considering the climax is (admirably) committed to soaking us in psychedelic visuals and Clint Mansell’s cacophonous synth score.
Still, it doesn’t ruin the whole thing, and there’s a lot to admire about the patience and considered filmmaking on display here, especially considering the constraints they were under. Fry and Torchia make for a relatable lead pair, down-to-earth protagonists as confused by what’s going on as we are, with Torchia taking on a more proactive role to contrast Fry’s passive emotional intelligence. Shearsmith is nail-bitingly terrifying as a man fully in thrall to the folk-horror machinations that drive the story, and Squires does her best with the hokey explanations, even if she doesn’t fully succeed.
As mercenary as In the Earth’s production was, it never feels rushed. There’s still a sense that Wheatley has composed, more or less, a complete film — something you couldn’t say even for some of his pre-pandemic works. Derivative as it may be at times (it’s absolutely a pastiche of its genre forebears), there’s a vagabond charm to getting away with filming a neat little thriller like this in quarantine. Wheatley’s filmography is full of big swings — sometimes he hits, sometimes he misses — so it’s borderline refreshing to see him pull back and work within limitations. While the results don’t quite tap into our psychological anxieties about the pandemic, there’s something to the idea that the earth is rebelling against us, and that we need to either adapt or die.
This review is from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.