Director: Ben Wheatley
Stars: Ellora Torchia, Joel Fry, Hayley Squires
From one extreme to the other; those keeping an eye on the timeline here at The Lost Highway Hotel will note this is the second review of the day following Jon M Chu’s In the Heights. It’s a swift move from all-singing all-dancing to Ben Wheatley’s pandemic-themed woodsy horror.
18 months into the COVID-19 crisis and we’ve already been stung by creative filmmakers trying to work the virus into their stories (Locked Down, for instance, is best left forgotten). A couple have struck a fine balance (see Alice Rohrwacher’s deft short Four Roads), but for the most part it’s been a case of too much, too soon. Fortunately, Wheatley’s offering proves not only a success story on its own terms, but probably stands as his best work since he drew wide attention with Kill List.
It’s good to see him on form again, especially after we last found him cashing a Netflix pay cheque for that spiritually bankrupt Rebecca remake. In the Earth sees him on much more fertile ground, and marks a return to the horror roots (bot figurative and literal) that defined his features of the early 2010s.
Joel Fry is Martin Lowery, a botanist and researcher just out of 4 months of lockdown thanks to a COVID-esque virus that has brought British living to a standstill. He arrives at a remote lab set up on the fringes of some sprawling woodland to aid in a study, one that requires trekking deep into the forestland in the company of fellow scientist Alma (Ellora Torchia). On their way to meet up with reclusive project lead Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), the conversation sketches out a history between Martin and their head of operations. Then, by night, the two of them are set upon by a violent unseen force.
While physical well-being seems a primary concern upfront, its perhaps psychological wellness that concerns Wheatley the most about our ongoing circumstances. Reece Shearsmith arrives as a darkly cheerful proxy for Wheatley by the name of Zach. A hermit oddball living in the woods with a fondness for posing people like props and who sees photography as akin to the dark arts of old magic, its not hard to see Zach as Wheatley’s worst fears for himself; a warped casualty of prolonged isolation and director of chaos. The inside of his tent is a putrid mix of gangrenous greens and pungent reds, reflective of a rotting interior.
An unpredictable mixture of scientific skepticism and sinister folklore, its best to enter In the Earth with as little knowledge of where it’s headed as possible. Just as Kill List presented itself as a kitchen-sink hit man drama before turning into something far more insidious, so In the Earth finds power in transformation.
One thing Wheatley does excel at is queasy tonal contrast. As evidenced before in Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England, he’s a sucker for horror spliced with inexplicable and even inappropriate humour. He understands that what is frightening is often also absurd. Again, Shearsmith is a great foil for him with his extensive history in the same field (The League of Gentlemen, Inside No. 9). Watching Zach go full Jack Torrance while still referring to his tent as a house had me laughing out loud. And there’s something basically funny about someone rescuing you from mortal danger… subject to completion of a rapid antigen test.
As with A Field in England, Wheatley takes the relatively low-stakes arena of no-budget horror to dabble in flashes of psychedelia. Even taking the prolonged sci-fi delirium of High-Rise into account, this is his trippiest work yet. He is aided and abetted on the soundtrack by Clint Mansell who bypasses the usual folk-horror touchstones for something altogether more Tangerine Dreamy.
In the second half, when Squires makes a more material impact on the picture, In the Earth gets talky about its concerns. Perception. Connectivity. The fragility of one’s sanity. And, in its contrast of two characters in particular, both the similarities and differences in secular and scientific approaches to the world and its mysteries. An equally appropriate title might’ve been Woman of Science, Man of Faith (one solely for the LOST fans there).
Occupying a strange mid-point between Koko-Di Koko-Da, Annihilation and Wheatley’s own A Field in England, In the Earth marks a new creative peak from one of Britain’s most interesting directors thought lost to the system barely six months ago. Who says this can’t be the real feel-good hit of the summer?