Conceived on the first day that Britain went into lockdown and shot over a long summer where the simple act of standing near strangers was fraught with danger, folk horror In The Earth is one of the first major movie releases to thematically reckon with Covid-19 onscreen. It also marks a return to basics for Ben Wheatley following his lavish adaptation of Rebecca, playing like the gnarly, nasty offspring of Kill List, Sightseers, and A Field In England.
Joel Fry stars as Dr Martin Lowery, a demure research scientist studying means of making crops more efficient through their roots for Dr Olivia Wendell (Hayley Squires). Wendell’s research station is located deep in the woods, so Martin is escorted on the two-day trek by Elloria Torchia’s capable park ranger Alma. Shortly after discovering an ominous abandoned tent, Martin and Alma are attacked in their sleep and left with everything but their shoes. Are there people hiding in the woods – fleeing cities in the thrall of what we’re told is a devastating third wave – or is there some truth to the legend of Parnag Fegg, a spirit that resides in the roots under their feet?
“People get a bit funny in the woods sometimes... it is a hostile environment” we’re told. Despite Director of Photography Nick Gillespie’s lush cinematography, there’s certainly nothing welcoming about Wheatley’s verdant woodland crucible. By night Martin and Alma are kept awake by piercing fox screams, while during the day their silhouettes are swallowed by towering tree trunks.
Martin notes “It’s just odd, being outside for the first time in months” following an extended period of isolation. The sense that these are people getting to grips with the outside world in a new context is one of the film’s richest seams, and proves there’s mileage in pandemic stories beyond viral infection and Zoom calls. But it’s immediately clear this isn’t a place where people should wander unprepared, an unsettling atmosphere amplified by Clint Mansell’s superb synth score.
While shoeless and vulnerable Martin and Alma encounter Reece Shearsmith’s sinister stranger Zach, whose kindly manner – you quickly suspect – masks an ulterior motive. Shearsmith is a treat here in a darkly comic turn that’s simultaneously threatening and hilarious. Some wincingly savage body horror follows (needless to say this isn’t a film for anyone with a low tolerance for prosthetic wounds and copious quantities of crimson Karo syrup) but you won’t know whether to grit your teeth or bust a gut first. It’s the kind of film packed Friday night cinemas were made for.
Fry, so often the underserved comic relief in the likes of Danny Boyle’s Yesterday, is a singularly British brand of wet towel here, polite and feckless in the face of unimaginable punishment. He’s oddly delightful, but entirely passive. Without Torchia’s resourceful and resilient Alma the film would be half as long and half as interesting. Both are blank slates – character development restricted to its immediate relevance to their survival – but Fry and Torchia are charismatic enough to convey a life beyond the film’s fauna.
What a shame then that Wheatley’s relative restraint slips for a final act freakout as the truth behind Dr Wendell’s research project is revealed. Experimental editing, irritating strobe lighting, a discordant soundscape, creepy symbols, ritual stones, literal stick men, and a psychedelic mist are just some of the grab bag of ingredients deployed for a mind-scrambling crescendo that doesn’t so much put a pin in the story as pop it. Oddly enough, a more grounded finale may have served the film better.
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