I’d all but given up on Ben Wheatley. After the early highlights of cult favourite Kill List, the inspired Sightseers and the bold JG Ballard adaptation High Rise his talent seems to have waned. I found his shoot-out comedy Free Fire a bit hit-and-miss, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead no cause for celebration, and his adaptation of Rebecca for Netflix was anonymous. With his decision to take on The Meg 2 as his next film, he seemed to have jumped the shark.
So I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed his pandemic horror In The Earth when it premiered at Sundance. Written quickly in just two weeks last August and filmed in a matter of days in a forest near Oxford, it feels fresh and urgent. Clearly inspired by Covid19, it feels very timely, echoing its dangers, restrictions and isolation. Wheatley was keen to rush its production so it could be released while we’re still collectively experiencing these weird times. And it hits home.
Set during an unnamed worldwide pandemic, the film follows Dr Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) attempts to reach a remote scientific test site deep within a forest, a two-day journey on foot. He’s going to to work with his former supervisor Dr Olivia Wendle, played by Hayley Squires (In Fabric, Wheatley’s Colin Burstead). Martin is accompanied on his journey by Alma (Ellora Torchia, Connie in Midsommar), a park scout whose capable and practical outdoors skills are a welcome antedote to Martin’s cityboy incompetence. They suffer a mysterious nighttime attack in which the two are beaten up by unseen strangers and many of their possessions are stolen including, crucially, their shoes. The pair find welcome shelter offered by Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a loner who has been living secretly off-grid in the woods. But they’re soon to discover the danger they’re in, not just from the people in the forest but perhaps from the forest itself.
There’s now a growing library of ‘lockdown’ films, but with the very notable exception of Rob Savage’s Zoom-horror Host, most of these have been underwhelming ventures. Wheatley’s film is a pleasant surprise; he uses the restrictions of the pandemic as a strength. The very small cast and crew allows the production to be nimble and by filming in a large forest he creates a world that’s frighteningly vast and disorienting yet claustrophobic. It’s a refreshing break from the recent batch of single-location indoor dramas.
Wheatley takes us into a wilderness with not a computer not a webcam in sight. There’s no mobile phone reception (and, implausibly, this also means no GPS to aid wayfinding in the forest). It’s very much back-to-nature in this disconcerting blend of woodland horror and survival thriller.
The sense of unease is introduced early when the screenplay sets up a mythical forest entity. Martin asks about an odd folk-art woodcut (reminiscent of Midsommar) on the ranger station wall and is told of a vague amorphous presence called Parnag Fegg. Some local folklore nonsense that the locals tell their kids about to make them behave, as attested by the nearby pile of children’s crayon drawings that interpret of the monster.
Accordingly, Wheatley finds a creepiness in this dense English countryside that is more unsettling than directly malevolent, giving us hints and incidents that often remain unexplained, allowing our own imagination to do some of the legwork.
The film’s probably at its strongest in the middle section. Reece Shearsmith is excellent as Zach, playing him with an initially understated kindness that belies more sinister intentions. Shearsmith is best known from The League of Gentlemen, of course, but also had a very different role in Wheatley’s High Rise. Inhabiting a semi-permanent forest hideaway with its veils of translucent tarpaulin, he ensnares the pair with benign hospitality, at least at first.
While Wheatley hints at a rustic supernatural malevolence mostly by suggestion, the human threat is much more direct and graphic. There’s a couple of deliciously gory moments courtesy of effects artist Dan Martin whose work can also be experienced in Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor and Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor (also at Sundance).
Wheatley brings out the tension in a deadly game of wits as the pair’s escape attempts are often thwarted. But the real threat is the unseen, and the film becomes increasingly unhinged and psychedelic as we get deeper into the forest. Nick Gillespie’s impressive camerawork expresses the chaos and reinforces the unknowingness of raw nature.
Unfortunately, the story in the final third becomes incrementally more muddled and incoherent; Wheatley transplants Alex Garland’s wonderful Annihilation to the English countryside and adds a sprinkling of ‘The Secret Life of Trees’ and even Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as the characters try various means to commune with the (super)natural presence. The script gets a little bogged down with some convoluted exposition from Olivia (Squires does her best with a thinly written character). But at the same time, the film gets crazier, with some striking visuals and bizarre situations.
In the end, it’s best not to overthink this – Wheatley clearly didn’t when developing his rushed script – and instead just go with the mood. The film’s third act especially is a blur of excessive strobe-lit weirdness enhanced by a superb claustrophobic pulsating synth soundtrack from Clint Mansell (a Wheatley regular who has also scored several Darren Aronofsky films including Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream). Wheatley maintains a unique tone and sense of disorientation which, for me at least, allowed me to forgive some deeply silly and incoherent moments.
He expresses the weird sense of isolation, of stasis and claustrophobia that we’re all currently experiencing with the pandemic and translates that into an inscrutable and unsettling folk horror. The two leads are desperately trying to escape from the madness of their arboreal entrapment. Zach, and later Olivia, are in turn trapped within their own delusions, have gone mad by a period of prolonged isolation.
Whether you stick with In The Earth to its conclusion will depend on how willing you are to tolerate Wheatley’s vision. He’s a divisive director even at his best, and many find his gleefully twisted and mildly perverse worldview a turnoff or even a bore. But this is somewhat a return to form and to his earlier obsessions. The film’s weaknesses, mostly in the third act, are likely to be a consequence of the movie’s rushed genesis and of the practical limitations of filming in a pandemic.
Wheatley mostly makes it work because he has a distinctive creative vision and the resourcefulness to make a lot from a very limited budget. The director’s early success has proved a double-edged sword, his recent efforts have been diluted or anonymous. Here’s hoping his fortnight in the forest rekindled some creative excitement and inspiration that he can carry through to future projects.Follow @davefilmblog