In the Earth is Ben Wheatley’s most overtly horror of horror films since he did the U is for Unearthed section of the portmanteau The ABCs of Death, though in films like Sightseers, High Rise and last year’s Rebecca horror has always lurked at the edges of his work.
Made during the covid pandemic, and incorporating its disinfecting/distancing precautions into theme and treatment (there’s a covid supervisor in the crew credits), it’s a film all about infection, though the contagion in question isn’t so much microbial or viral as an infection of the rational mind by the spores of unreason. In In the Earth, cool, clear, scientifically trained minds are taken over by pagan beliefs, and lab drills and peer-reviewed publication in sober journals is trumped by the urgings of books of old lore.
Into a forest clearing where a research station is located walks Martin Lowery (likeable everyman Joel Fry). He is scanned and sprayed by masked scientists. After an overnight stay he and fellow researcher Alma (Ellora Torchia) head off on a two-day hike to find Doctor Wendle, who is Colonel Kurtz-like out there somewhere doing hazily understood research into mycorrhizae, the subterranean fungi that both sustain trees in a symbiotic exchange of nutrients and act as a kind of natural information superhighway. Of which more later.
But before going Martin has been schooled in the local legend of Parnag Fegg, a Green Man-style manifestation of the spirit of the forest, a woodcut of whose frighteningly pre-Christian form hangs in the research station. Of which more later also.
Off they go, Alma leading the way because Martin isn’t as fit or tough as he made out to the guys back at the station. Stuff happens, out there in the woods. The duo are beaten up and have their shoes stolen in their sleep. Martin cuts his foot badly and it gets infected. Luckily, Martin and Alma meet a nicely spoken gent, Zach, in the forest and he takes them in. Since Zach is played by Reece Shearsmith, who has a gallery of grotesques on his CV, it’s not long before Zach is revealed as a mad maniac. On Martin and Alma plunge, deeper into the woods, until they meet the good Doctor, who’s obviously gone a bit off her chump while out doing her solitary research.
Wheatley has a refreshing take on the English countryside. Avoiding the two usual representations, In the Earth’s forest is neither grimly horrible nor splendidly bucolic. The Wicker Man stalks this space somewhere, but he’s in the distance, held at bay by a bosky vision of the damp, soft, verdant English landscape – Sightseers, with more trees and the smell of leaf mould.
A strange film of two halves is what we have here. Part one (everything up to the arrival at the “safe harbour” of Dr Wendle) is a genius display of tension building, with Wheatley’s remarkable compressed, overlapping editing and DP Nick Gillespie’s camera’s differing focal planes adding to a feeling of escalating awfulness. This first half culminates in an Argento-esque frenzy, with a mortally endangered Alma and Martin trying to escape the clearly mad Zach, who seems to have been taken over by irrational, perhaps ancient, urges.
Explication takes over from mood in the second half – enter the good doctor – as Wheatley and regular co-writer Amy Jump attempt to weld the fascinating (but under-explored) scientific notion of sensate subterranean fungae with older lore about the workings of the natural world in the shape of the myth of Parnag Fegg.
There is a lot of chat, most of it coming from Dr Wendle (Hayley Squires) who, in her own way, seems to have gone as mad as Zach out there on her own. Sadly, in much the same way as the swivel-eyed scientist has been infected by ancient lore, so the film seems also to be carrying its own viral load.
Wheatley himself seems to understand that something has drifted in part two, that the genuine originality of the first part has been replaced by boggy horror convention, and so gives us a “greatest hits” montage of the best bits from the first half of the film as things move into a climax which also invokes the psychedelic montage of the end of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In the Earth is a good horror film that really should be a great one. Its cast is superb, its craft is too, but it drifts from the breathtakingly original and genuinely scary into something much more familiar as it seeks to explain too much. It’s an infection, caught, I’m diagnosing, by exposure to too many Hammer horror movies.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021