Synopsis: As the world searches for a cure to a disastrous virus, a scientist and park scout venture deep in the forest for a routine equipment run. Through the night, their journey becomes a terrifying voyage through the heart of darkness, the forest coming to life around them.
Stars: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Hayley Squires, Reece Shearsmith, John Hollingworth, Mark Monero
Director: Ben Wheatley
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: We’re officially over a year into this pandemic and while we’re marking a number of milestones in our own lives, we also look outside our own bubble for the lasting effects this global crisis has had on our previous normalcy. If you’re reading this (and this review in particular), odds are you’re a movie fan that has felt the sting of not being able to go to the theater as much to see film and likely consumed a great deal of releases that were completed long before the lockdown began. While we’ve already seen several movies filmed when the restrictions on the wide shut-downs were eased (Songbird, Malcolm & Marie), over the next few months we can expect to see a new crop of titles that were conceived, filmed, and released during the COVID-19 epidemic. Some will have nothing to do with the virus or make mention of it at all while others, like writer/director Ben Wheatley’s new horror film In the Earth, will make it integral to their plot.
I’ve definitely had my ups and downs with Wheatley over the years, with the early high points (2011’s unforgettably cruel Kill List) giving way to harder to take lower points (2015’s cuckoo High-Rise), which led to 2020’s par-baked remake of Rebecca on Netflix that I sort of liked but was mostly dismissed by everyone else. Before he jumps into his first big blockbuster film (a sequel to The Meg for Warner Brothers), Wheatley took the time during lockdown to write In the Earth and then went ahead and gathered the crew and made the thing. The result is another uneven effort from the always off-balance director who demonstrates again that he knows how to start a film that sinks its hooks into you with a fierce force but can’t maintain his grip on the plot, allowing the narrative to go totally slack by the end.
During a fierce plague that continues to throttle England, research scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry, Yesterday) arrives at a deserted forest lodge serving as the gateway to a larger area of woodland that has been made available for scientific study. Intending to bring new equipment to a colleague, he needs the assistance of a guide to help him navigate the trails and terrain he is unable to cross himself. Setting out with Alma (Ellora Torchia, Midsommar), an observant ranger who gets the feeling there’s more to Martin’s story than he’s letting on, the two don’t make it too far into thick before they are attacked during the night by an unseen presence.
Without supplies (or shoes), they continue on, eventually meeting up with Zach (Reece Shearsmith, The World’s End) who has entered the park illegally but offers to help them in exchange for their silence. Forgetting what their mothers always told them about going anywhere with a stranger, Martin and Alma agree to go back to Zach’s camp and it’s about then that Wheatley’s promising beginning starts to unravel, slowly at first and then quickly as time wears on. There’s more to Zach than meets the eye and the same goes for the forest, which Wheatley has filled with Celtic lore and rumors about Parnag Fegg, a spirit of the forest said conjure all sorts of spooky what-have-yous and no-thank-you-whatnots. These Blair Witch-y elements are all fine and dandy, it just depends on how you use them and how Wheatley chooses to weave them into the back half of the movie makes for a dizzying experience.
Fair warning for anyone with light sensitivities, the final third of In the Earth features lengthy sequences of strobe lights and other visually intense moments. It’s a stylistic choice that works in some respects (there’s a dandy shiver-inducing shot involving Zach and an axe) but fails in most others because it feels like a punishment to watch. Even I had to look down or look away for a few seconds just to give my eyes a rest. The arrival of a fourth character, Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires, In Fabric), initially steers the film back to its mysterious origins with a lot of strangely welcome exposition (often a sign of script weakness but here actually a boon after an onslaught of obtuseness) but it isn’t long before we’ve drifted back to the not as engrossing side of Wheatley’s tale where it’s all shock and awe showmanship. That kind of filmmaking seems a bit beneath the director at this point.
This being a Wheatley film, you knew the violence isn’t going to shy away from gaping gashes, flayed flesh, or other various injuries incurred in this trek into terror. Though he tries to temper some of the more extreme acts with some humor, it doesn’t necessarily break the tension of the moment because we always know that Wheately will see it through to the end anyway, somehow. In that respect, the production design and special effects make-up is well done as is Clint Mansell’s (Noah) unsettling score that could almost be considered a fifth character lost in the woods. While the camera work also helps in setting the mood, cinematographer Nick Gillespie (Stan & Ollie) allows it to get increasingly frenzied instead of the jarring which would be a more sophisticated approach and still in line with the attitude of the piece. Performances are generally solid, with Shearsmith achieving a tough to maintain balance of menace tempered with a fair dose of dark humor and Torchia proving a compelling lead. Only Squires feels out of place in the quartet, but she appears so late that her presence is meant to upset the balance so perhaps it’s all intentional.
Horror speaks to people on many different levels so for you, In the Earth might be that nice mix of pandemic panic leading to horrors we never could have imagined. Or, if you’re like me, you want more follow-through with your features and wish obviously talented people like Wheatley, who proves over and over again he can gather the right people and conceptualize an idea, would get out of their own way. While it has brief moments of flight at the outset, In the Earth mostly never leaves the ground to achieve something bigger.