Off-the-bat: Major epilepsy/strobe warning in effect for In The Earth. Stay far away from this film if that concerns you in any way.
Director Ben Wheatley is no stranger to putting on different filmmaking hats, from his takes on British folk horror with Kill List and A Field in England, crime dramas with Down Terrace and Free Fire, or prestige dramas with High Rise and Rebecca, Wheatley is willing to try it all, even if a bit clumsily at times. It’s an incredibly admirable approach to filmmaking that is not often seen in other directors these days. Everyone has a lane and tends to stay in it for the most part, leaving Wheatley’s work, while albeit a bit inconsistent, consistently engaging from the sheer unpredictability of it all. Emerging as his first post-COVID film, In The Earth feels like Wheatley at his most comfortable in the realm of British folk horror, and, after the year we’ve had, perhaps a little bit of psychedelic terror at the behest of Ben Wheatley might actually do some good.
In The Earth follows a scientist, Martin (Joel Fry), and park ranger, Alma (Ellora Torchia), as they journey two days into the thicket of the English countryside forest to deliver surveying materials to a research camp in the forest run by Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires). As their journey goes on, Martin and Alma begin to feel the forest growing more constricting as they’re subjected to both the mind-bending elements of the forest and the increasingly deranged antics of a mysterious man living in the forest (Reece Shearsmith).
In The Earth is a film best left unexplained, but also one that is going to leave audiences feeling a bit cold if not prepared for a most…unconventional experience, such is the way of studios like Neon and A24 taking their artsy horror films into a wide release. I do feel that the trailer at least can somewhat prepare you for the type of literal trip you’ll be taking with this film, but you can only prepare for something I can only describe as “Annihilation and The Blair Witch Project as directed by Gaspar Noé during a depressive episode.”
Shot during the COVID pandemic in a bubble back in August, there is a recognition of a virus happening in the film, but it’s never specified as anything that could open this constrictive world to anything that feels like a big picture. All you know is that something bad is happening outside, as well as inside, of this forest. This might be the first time where I actually appreciate the incorporation of a COVID-style world in a piece of media, as it only seeks to heighten the perceived claustrophobia of the film’s already tight setting. Everything feels inescapable, and it becomes a very effective storytelling technique that never feels like a gimmick, simply playing on our existing fears of life to craft newer, worse ones. That might sound like hell to some viewers (as it should), but this spoke to me in a way that almost made me giddy.
And then that giddiness went away because dear god In The Earth is heavy stuff. Not emotionally burdening in the same way “heavy” is utilized to describe a film, but heavy in the sense that Wheatley does not want you to be able to breathe past a certain point in the film. There comes a point when you begin to question not just the fabric of reality within the woods, but what exactly is supposed to be the main horror to fear within it. There’s a vastness to the types of horror that Wheatley goes for in this, touching upon slasher films, folk horror, body horror, psychedelic horror, psychological horror, etc. It can feel hodgepodge at some points, but the disorienting effect it creates while trying to figure out In The Earth’s game is genuinely frightening.
Tying the whole horrible feel of In The Earth together is a stellar score from Clint Mansell, perhaps one of the most underrated composers in the entire film industry. Mansell succeeds so wonderfully in his film scores that “more” does not always equal “better.” This conservatively utilized, but violently effective score brings all of the moments of In The Earth worthy of wincing or covering your eyes over together and all the more horrifying for it.
Chances are, audiences are going to *hate* In The Earth, or at least those not entirely sure what they’re getting into with a Ben Wheatley horror film. It’s trippy, a bit manic, and violent in a deeply unsatisfying, gut-wrenching way, which left me entirely satisfied, but might alienate more than it brings in. It’s a tough balance because In The Earth, for those willing to heed its warnings, is best when going in with the least amount of preparation possible, making that sweet spot of those affected most by it relatively slim. However, if In The Earth feels like your cup of tea from the outset, it stands to reason that you’ll most likely enjoy it. If In The Earth sounds like your personal hellscape of a film experience, I guarantee you that your gut feeling on that is also correct. That distinction is about the only thing In The Earth hands you in plain, straightforward language.
In select theaters April 16th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official In The Earth website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.