By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Joel Fry, Reece Shearsmith and Hayley Squires
Written and directed by Ben Wheatley
Introducing IN THE EARTH as part of its premiere in the on-line Sundance Film Festival, writer/director/editor Ben Wheatley stated that, while it was produced during the time of COVID-19, the movie is not really about the pandemic. And although IN THE EARTH is set in the midst of a very familiar-looking environment of isolation and PPE, it soon literally leaves that behind as Wheatley harks back to the kinds of woodsy, psychedlic horror he explored a decade ago in KILL LIST and A FIELD IN ENGLAND. It’s a welcome return to the genre, if an uneven one.
Conceived on the first day of lockdown and shot last summer (with release planned for later this year by Neon), IN THE EARTH begins with the arrival of masked scientist Dr. Martin Lowry (Joel Fry) to Gantalow Lodge, at the edge of an expansive forest preserve. Undergoing disinfection procedures even as he discusses his project with Gantalow’s residents, in a way suggesting this has long been workaday procedure, Martin is making a pit stop there on the way to meeting up with his colleague Dr. Olivia Wendle, who’s gone incommunicado. That’s a mildly ominous sign; couple that with early discussions and visuals regarding an ancient, monstrous forest deity called Parnag Fegg–not to mention the film’s title–and expectations are set for encounters of the supernatural, possibly pagan kind once Martin and park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) set out on a two-day walk to Olivia’s last known campsite.
Care should be taken in describing what happens from there, since Wheatley pulls the narrative rug out from under us a couple of times as he blends folk horror with the terrors that can be spawned from an obsessed mind. There are strange animal cries and then worse the first night Martin and Alma make camp in the woods, and the next day they encounter Zach (Reece Shearsmith), who has established a handcrafted home and become quite good at living off the land. It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that the duo do ultimately encounter Olivia (Hayley Squires), who has been using light and sound processes to literally commune with nature. How nature answers, and its effect on the foursome, form the basis of IN THE EARTH’s horror, which Wheatley takes his time in bringing to the fore. During the first 40 minutes or so, the most unpleasant development is an injury to Martin’s foot that requires a very painful, close-up stitching, before the appearance of the Malleus Maleficarium (Hammer of the Witches) reintroduces the occult themes teased in the opening minutes.
IN THE EARTH was, by necessity, shot quickly (15 days) and cheaply, but sure doesn’t look like it. Cinematographer Nick Gillespie gives the movie a lush veneer, mixing serene static takes introducing us to the environment with nervous handheld as the situation goes south. Shooting almost entirely in the woods, in this case, doesn’t feel like a cost-cutting measure; while the scope is limited, the visuals become extravagant midway through in ways that bestow a bigger feel upon the film. These first come to the fore in a lengthy, arresting scene illuminated by strobe flashes and a red flare, and is followed later by even more hallucinatory setpieces.
Indeed, IN THE EARTH has the feel of being constructed as a showcase for these eye-cramming passages; all the attention-seizing imagery (and potentially seizure-inducing light flashes, which occasioned an advisory before Sundance’s on-line screening) exists in the service of a fairly sketchy narrative. The early scenes get a bit into the inner lives of its central pair, and their reactions to the pandemic–Martin appreciates the opportunity to be out and about again after four months of sheltering, while Alma persists in believing that things will be back to normal and the populace will move on soon. Ultimately, though, IN THE EARTH is more about delivering a sensory experience than an emotional one. It’s best appreciated if you just strap in for the ride and don’t ponder what it all means (even if that can be difficult when Olivia has so much dialogue attempting to explain that meaning).
Contributing significantly to the experience is the hypnotic score by Clint Mansell, while Felicity Hickson’s production design has just the right handmade, character-specific feel. Less concerned with our current state of distancing than with madness resulting from misguided fixations, IN THE EARTH also reveals Wheatley as a film artist who hasn’t let the current restrictions get in the way of letting all his particular stylistic impulses hang out.