After Ben Wheatley’s first steps into filmmaking on a far larger scale gave us High Rise and his remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (and before he handles his first mega-budget with – wait for it – The Meg 2) the British auteur has decided to return to his roots (pun very much intended) with this pandemic shot and set slice of eco-horror that, true to form, should astound and dazzle in equal measure.
Shot at the height of lockdown with minimal cast and crew with a script tailor made to play to the strengths of all the requisite precautions everyone on set had to follow, In The Earth is a modern horror parable that doubles up as a haunting snapshot of the insane period of history we all just lived through with all the copious hand washing and mask wearing we’ve come to endure collapsing in the face of nature unbound.
As a virus ravages the cities just off screen, timid scientist Martin Lowery travels to a government outpost in Bristol to aid ex colleague and ex lover Olivia Wendle in her experiments to increase crop efficiency in an unusually fertile part of a forest. Paired up with forrest ranger Alma, the duo begin their two day Trek to Wendle’s camp on foot and during their first night out are assaulted by an unseen couple who beat them up and steal their shoes leaving them to wake in the morning bruised and disoriented – two feelings they should begin to get used to…
Continuing to make their way barefoot through the unforgiving foliage, Martin inevitably slices his foot on sharp rocks buried in the dirt but their luck seems to eventually change upon bumping into Zach, a seemingly rational photographer living in the wilderness who has forgone the hustle and bustle of the beleaguered cities.
It’s here where things truly start to go south as Zach proves to be not so mild as his demeanor suggests and drugs the pair with the intention of using their dressed up, unconscious bodies as bizarre models for his art that he hopes will impress a mythical forest being. Eventually escaping Zach’s hugely alarming photo shoots with their lives (minus a toe or two), both Martin and Alma finally make it to Wendle’s camp, where the scientist has doubled down on her research in using strobe lights and various combinations of sounds to communicate with the forrest itself. Truly believing she’s on the verge of a breakthrough (instead of a break down) Wendle tries to convince Martin to stay even though Alma thinks that an axe wielding Zach still wandering the woods is more of a priority – but pretty soon nature makes their decision for them as the fungus in the area have released spores in a mist surrounding the camp that cause an instant an traumatic bad trip once inhaled.
Is the forrest really trying to commune with them and if so, what the hell is it trying to say?
There’s not many filmmakers out there that would consider crafting a whole bloody movie during a global pandemic an opportunity to play to their strengths, but that’s exactly what’s so special about Wheatley. Let’s not forget, he once shot a movie about the British civil war in a single field with only six cast members in the fascinatingly bizarre A Field In England and in many ways, In The Earth could be seen as a spiritual sequel of sorts as the two films share many similarities – not least being they a both stories about very isolated people being manipulated by nature itself while being impressively off their tits on hallucinogenics.
I guess now is a good as time as any to drop my standard warning to lovers of more standard “jump-horror” that In The Earth is a meticulous slow burn that wilfully withholds any simple explanation as what and why things are happening and the performances and dialogue are deliberately stilted and awkward to both put across the isolation everyone is feeling and to ramp up the anxious feelings that everything feels decidedly “off”. This is chiefly put across by the main performance from Joel Fry (him off Plebs) as the almost entirely passive Martin whose pathetic bleating makes him both sound distractingly like David Walliams and casts him firmly in a pathetic victim role. Ellora Torchia’s Alma, on the other hand, falls into the more traditional “hero with common sense” column – probably because she’s had questionable run-ins with drugs and nature before thanks to her small part in Midsommar – a proves to be a capable voice of reason when events turn to trippy mania.
Ben Wheatley semi-regular Reese Shearsmith mines a rich vein of dark comedy as even-voiced nature loon Zach (would it be too much of a cheap shot to call him an eco-maniac?) and Hayley Squires’ Wendle is not a million miles away from being a gigantic-eyed Colonal Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, who’s utterly disassociated performance hints at how native she’s truly gone.
Wheatley, stripped of a conventional film shoot, borrows a lot from his precious works and even though I’ve already mentioned A Field In England, the final reel freak out is more in tune with the climactic chaos seen in Kill List (arguably Wheatley’s best) which positively revels in answering as few lingering questions as it possibly can and instead batters you senseless with flashing imagery and pounding sounds.
The echo of the grim, matter-of-fact humour of Sightseers is present too with the running gag of the continuing abuse that Martin’s long suffering left foot has to endure utterly guaranteed to draw gasps of discomfort from a squeamish audience.
Relying more on far out concepts and stark presentation than typical scares to unnerve it’s audience (it’s suggested that ringworm might be used by nature to subtly manipulate certain people), some will no doubt be grumpily resistant to the point behind Wheatley’s thrown together pandemic set pandemonium, but this inventive mound of ideas and mood is an intriguing oddity that uses it’s (hopefully) unique period to speak about a time when the entire planet was trapped with an uncertain future that had nothing to do with communicating with trees by getting off their head with flashing lights and subwoofers….
I love shit like this (as well as more traditional fare) but some will feel that this messed up romp in the woods may too far out of it’s tree for their tastes.