Wheatley’s latest both builds and holds tension effectively, harnessing the director’s penchant for psychedelia and bruising horror to brutal effect.
When Martin remarks at the wonder of being out of the house for the first time in four months, Alma, his guide into the woods in which they’ve made camp, replies that it’s only a matter of time before the COVID pandemic is over and people will quickly go back to behaving the way they always had before. Martin isn’t so sure, but Alma is certainly on to something: this is the first time Martin has left the house since the pandemic started, and already he’s willingly wandered into a forest rumored to be haunted. Come on, man.
In the Earth, the film Ben Wheatley directed during lockdown and between studio projects, is less about COVID than this early conversation might suggest, however, and blessedly a (mostly) straightforward horror story about the bad things that happen if you dare spend time in nature. Martin is setting out into the woodlands to assist on a research project with someone he hasn’t heard from in some time. Soon after he and Alma make camp on their first night, they are attacked and left injured; shaken, without shoes, and with miles left in their journey. Enter Zack, a man living in the woods, who offers them food and shelter in his large tent compound. But, of course, Zack isn’t what he seems, at least to Martin and Alma. Viewers will immediately guess what’s up with Zack and they’d be right: he’s an ax-murdering madman. And for the next stretch of film, In the Earth is refreshingly simple. First, Zack tortures Martin and Alma in scenes that are as funny as they are unnerving, and then the pair try to make their escape. This attempt is easily the highlight of the film, an uncomplicated and violent cat and mouse through the woods at night, complete with a grisly discovery or two, culminating in the first of several kaleidoscopic sequences meant to suggest that Zack isn’t the only, or even most, evil thing in these woods.
The second half of the film, more concerned with the centuries-old evil lying in the Earth, shifts into the realm of science fiction and paranormal investigation. In doing so, Wheatley loses the plot somewhat, as this relatively low-key section doesn’t have quite the same grasp on the first half’s simple pleasures and represents a too-long stretch between pitched horror pieces. Still, it mostly remains intriguing stuff, approaching occult evil with science and boasting a few more of those strobing montages set to Clint Mansell’s fuzzed-out score, which is used diegetically here. The tension and unease hold throughout, and it all culminates in another violent setpiece that is just as good as the one in the middle. That’s all to say, Wheatley is up to some pretty nifty stuff here. The film is unfussy and clean, with a necessarily limited scope that keeps the director reined in and creative. If there’s anything to take In the Earth to task for, then, it’s the very ending, which gets so wrapped up in psychedelia and ambiguity that it forgoes what really sings about the movie: direct and bruising horror.
Originally published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 3.