Fans of HOST (Rob Savage, 2020) will know that the limitations lockdown places on film making can be a boon to inventive not to mention low budget horror. Ben Wheatley has gone for the equal and opposite approach here, a film made almost entirely out of doors and with only four central characters and unlike HOST, In the Earth benefits from being seen in a cinema, a sensory overload where both sound and vision are used to disturb and disquiet. The primary setting is that most universal of liminal spaces (at least in the UK), a forest, where civilisation can seem to disappear within a few footsteps. Algernon Blackwood is the past master at this kind of woodland terror and while his influence can be felt, it’s notable that the majority of the threat comes from man made quarters.
Scientist Martin (Joel Fry) is led deep into the forest by ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) to re-establish contact with a Dr. Wendle (Hayley Squires), there’s no transport and the journey will take a couple of days. This gives a palpable sense of vulnerability to the proceedings; an unknown virus is sweeping though the UK and while this plays no part in the central drama it both heightens the tension for the characters while giving a nod to the very real anxieties being experienced by the viewing public. The early scenes at Ganalow Lodge, the evergreen sanctuary of survival horror, are used to get the world building and info dumping out of the way as quickly as possible and it’s here we get the slightly forced introduction to local legend Parnag Fegg, the spirit of the forest.
As Martin and Alma journey deeper the viewer is kept on edge by Nick Gillespie’s photography which regularly employs long shots to both highlight isolation and give the impression that our heroes are being watched. On the second day they encounter an abandoned tent with evidence of at least one child and that night are attacked by an unseen enemy that destroys their equipment and steals their shoes. The following day they’re given sanctuary by Zach (Reese Shearsmith). Little time is wasted in revealing his true character and it’s this second act of the film that’s the most effective as Martin and Alma are abused, drugged, tortured and are used in ritual worship. We discover that both Zach and Wendle are attempting to communicate with Parnag Fegg but while Wendle is using scientific experimentation, Zach favours idolatry. In the Earth is a highly balanced film as both science and superstition are shown to be different paths to the same goals. This is a common feature of Nigel Kneale’s dramas and Ben Wheatley referenced the Manx writer as an influence. Of all Kneale’s works Murrain (1975) feels most relevant with its talk of ‘a dreadful strength in the land’ and the ambiguous supernaturalism. But the balance also extends to Martin and Alma, throughout the film Martin is shown to be driven by emotion, a romantic which undermines his scientific profession, motivated by misplaced affection and a naive innocence while Alma is both practical and logical. Shearsmith’s appearance is a welcome injection of a more direct threat into the film but Wheatley knows what he’s got here and Shearsmith is never scarier than when he’s funny. Zach’s exasperation during the toe amputation scene, delivered in that slightly squawky Humberside accent he employs so well pitches the comedy and the horror perfectly. One never undermining the other.
The film’s final third, set in around Wendle’s camp gets bogged down in explanations of the mycorrhizal network and her attempts to communicate, and it feels like these ideas could have been (forgive me) seeded earlier as it brings with it an abrupt change of pace that leads to a slightly unsatisfying finale. Never the less, the revelation that Wendle and Zach were in a relationship and that Martin believes there to be a relationship between himself and Wendle, which references the Mabinogion tale Math ap Mathonwy or more specifically the TV adaptation of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (1969), a comparison only enhanced by the presence of a standing stone with a hole bored through it. And while Wheatley has not been shy about his references to 70s television, In The Earth also owes a debt to Peter Strickland, most notably Barbarian Sound Studio (2012) and In Fabric (2018), with the hauntlogy influenced title sequences and disorientating use of sound and light, and composer Clint Mansell gets a seemingly free reign to use the sounds of nature to both soothe and scare.
The acting is uniformly excellent although Squires suffers from having a large amount of clunky expo dialogue. Fry has a compelling vulnerability not a million miles away from his performance in Requiem (2018).
In the Earth is uneven but compelling and perhaps a draft or two away from nailing the story completely, however its presentation is flawless, its lessons about how nature can work with or against you depending on your relationship with it are sound and its full of traps for any unwary soul who expect certainty and understanding in the answers they seek.