IN THE EARTH (2021)
Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Hayley Squires, Reece Shearsmith
Directed by Ben Wheatley
On the 1-year anniversary of the COVID 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’ve all gone a little stir crazy while quarantining at home. I remember watching a movie during lockdown in which a large group had gathered for a celebration and I thought, “OMG, these people are not socially distanced.” Of course, the film was shot pre-pandemic, but my view of the world had changed forever thanks to the pandemic. For Wheatley, a lot of what he was watching during lockdown didn’t make sense anymore, so he wrote and shot “In the Earth” in just over 2 weeks, the film inspired by the virus.
In the film, the world has been ravished by an illness similar to COVID, although we’re spared the specifics but not the procedures in place to avoid contracting the virus. Facemasks and nasal swabs are all too familiar as we watch Dr. Martin Lowery (Fry) being tested 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 parents are recuperating from the virus back home. His concerns today, however, are focused on colleague 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 Olivia, but he’s required to use a guide for his own safety, enter park ranger Alma played by Ellora Torchia (Connie from “Midsommar”).
Torchia, the film’s strongest component, seems to have brought a bit of Ari Aster’s world with her as we see drawings on the wall, most of them done by kids probably during a summer camp before the world went to sh*t, of a mythological forest creature named Parnag Fegg. Part leshen, part wendigo, the creature resembles 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.
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. Let’s just say if Mark Wahlberg stepped into the frame it wouldn’t feel out of place. “In the Earth” remains grounded, never quite taking flight. 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.