In The Earth (2021)

Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia in a scene from Ben Wheatley’s “In the Earth.”

Just past the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 lockdown, writer-director Ben Wheatley unveils his answer to the pandemic. “In the Earth” is the nightmare that you’d expect from the filmmaker that gave us “Kill List,” “A Field in England” and “High Rise.”

Joel Fry (“Game of Thrones”) plays a scientist who arrives at a base camp located just outside the Arboreal Forest to prepare for a two-day hike into the woods to check on a colleague. Guided by park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia), the pair soon find themselves fighting for their lives against elements seen and unseen in this lucidity-lacerating horror trip.

Let’s face it, we all went a little stir crazy while quarantining at home last year. I was watching an older movie during lockdown in which a large group had gathered for a celebration and immediately I thought, “These people are not socially distanced!” My view of the world had changed forever thanks to the pandemic. To the same degree, a lot of what Ben Wheatley was watching during lockdown didn’t make sense anymore, so he wrote and shot “In the Earth” in just over two weeks, the film reflecting this brave new world we’ve all been forced to cope with.

“In the Earth” takes place in a world that has been ravished by a pandemic — it could be COVID-19 or something similar since the virus is never mentioned by name. We’re spared the specifics but not the procedures in place to avoid spreading the virus. Facemasks and nasal swabs are commonplace in Wheatley’s yarn, which begins with Dr. Martin Lowery (Fry) being tested for the virus at a lodge on the outskirts of the Arboreal Forest which has been taken over by the military and scientific community.

The comparisons to our current crisis continue as we learn that Martin’s elderly parents didn’t survive the pandemic. He writes about them frequently in his journal. His concerns today, however, are focused on colleague Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires) who hasn’t been heard from for some time. She was last seen conducting experiments on nature and fungi deep in the forest at test site ATU327A. Martin plans to spend two days hiking into the woods to find Dr. Wendle, but he’s required to use a guide for his own safety, enter park ranger Alma played by Ellora Torchia (Connie from Ari Aster’s “Midsommer”).

Torchia, the film’s strongest component, seems to have brought a bit of Aster’s world with her as we see drawings on the wall of the outpost, most of them done by kids during a summer camp before lockdown, of a mythological forest creature named Parnag Fegg. Part Leshen, part Wendigo, the creature resembles a figure from Slavic and Native American myths, but according to Ranger Alma, it’s mostly a bedtime fable used to scare children into falling asleep.

Once Martin and Alma venture into the woods, Wheatley wastes no time setting the mood. Abandoned campsites, mysterious noises, and a sense of dread penetrate the narrative that leads to quite a few not-for-the-squeamish moments and the introduction of hermit Zach played by Reece Shearsmith. He comes along just after Martin and Alma are attacked while sleeping by an unseen assailant leaving them battered, bruised, and shoeless.

Wheatley’s welcomed return to horror features plenty of traditional blood and gore (first-rate practical effects), but the filmmaker ventures back to “A Field in England” territory with an all-out video/audio assault that becomes a bit overwhelming during the intense climax. It’s very ambitious and experimental but also there are times that the film seems to venture into M. Night Shyamalan territory as “The Happening” comes to mind. “In the Earth” is like abstract art, it’s beautiful to look at but after a couple of hours, you’re still not sure what to make of it.

Gore is substituted for real frights so there isn’t a jump in your seat moment. The small cast is exceptional especially Shearsmith as the demented hermit with a knack for photography and indirect torture. In one scene he embodies the spirit of “The Shining’s” Jack Torrance played by Nicholson. Joel Fry has the toughest role as the recipient of much of the horror, while Torchia as the heroine and Hayley Squires as the mad scientist keep the audience engaged.

(3 stars)

Opens Friday, April 16 in theaters.

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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