Ben Wheatley’s pandemic horror film, “In the Earth,” was conceived, written and directed entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it turns out it’s just what the (witch) doctor ordered. Met with solid reviews at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, it was clear Wheatley had shrugged off his misstep of last year’s “Rebecca” for Netflix, and had returned to his raw horror roots.
“In the Earth” is set during an entirely different pandemic – one which we don’t see – the familiar protective measures taken during the film will elicit that all-too-familiar anxiety that and ever-present dread. One thing that has been said during our own pandemic is how nature is “healing,” emissions are down, and people are going out and to commune with nature. This story asks the question, “What if nature doesn’t want to commune with you?”
Scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) and his guide, Alma (Ellora Torchia), are paired up to head deep into the woods to perform a routine equipment check. The woods in question, though, may or may not be the domain of a malevolent spirit named Parnag Fegg. It’s said that anyone who ventures too deep into the woods becomes “a little funny.”
Naturally, the woman Martin loves, Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), has set up camp deep in the forest – and she has stopped sending any communications weeks ago. As Martin and Alma make their way to the research location, they are met with malicious intent by a man posing as the keeper of the wood. A helpful squatter named Zach (Reece Shearsmith) has a few memorable scenes, one involving a stump and a blunt instrument had me both laughing and covering my eyes.
What makes “In the Earth” so compelling is the small contained world in which the story is set. What is sure to be one of many pandemic films, this film’s aesthetic is actually aided by its obvious budget constraints rather than held back. The short production window and shoe-string budget really is Wheatley’s playground, forcing the filmmaker to rely on those skills that made him a Sundance darling and bringing back the raw and realistic aspects of what horror can be. Using the audience’s built-in pandemic paranoia against us, Wheatley is able to tap into a deeper level of anxiety and use it to his full advantage.
Without giving away too many of the goodies, eventually, the duo finds themselves as involuntary pawns in an attempt to make contact with whatever force is present in the woods. With equal parts frantic horror, à la “Blair Witch,” and cerebral horror like “The Shining,” add in a dash of fungus-inspired psychedelics and you’ll begin to scratch the surface of what “In the Earth” is all about.
In “In the Earth” Wheatley has crafted a truly mesmerizing experience, as the mounting dread is felt in every passing minute. A stellar and moody score from Clint Mansell and trippy, creative lighting and photography by Nick Gillespie bring the film’s atrocities to life, leaving a lasting effect that lingers well after the credits have rolled.
“In the Earth” is now playing in select theaters.
Film critic and member of the North Carolina Film Critic Association.