In The Earth (2021)

Ben Wheatley directs Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia and Reece Shearsmith in this COVID-era inspired horror movie where a scientist and a forest ranger find themselves lost in a wyrd woods relying on two hermits who might not have their best interests to heart.

Ben Wheatley is a director who pitches concepts that instantly appeal to my specific cinematic tastes even if the final products nearly always defy or subvert my expectations. This welcome return to folk horror was made in a mad dash. Written just as lockdown began last year and ready to roll in front of cameras before there was any attempt to ease restrictions. Whereas most movies hurried out in the last year have examined couples forced together like cellmates or kept apart like wartime romances, here is a genre film where two strangers are conjoined by a desire to survive and trapped quite ironically by the expansive great outdoors. A prologue makes references to a third wave of a virus, killing society beyond the tree lines. Face masks, lateral flow kits and hand sanitising crop up. But very quickly the hot topic of COVID fades into the background. Instead we find ourselves in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets the Blair Witch kinda situation, or rather more classily Hansel & Gretel as imagined by Nigel Kneale of The Stone Tapes and Quatermass fame.

The earth is mutating, releasing mind altering spores and with esoteric needs. Our hapless heroes find themselves having to encounter the isolated obsessives who run two camps… one a ceremonial artist who wants to pay tribute to a woodland spirit of a necromancer, the other a reclusive scientist trying more organised means to master the strange environment. Neither seem trustworthy, both hide secrets within the forbidden partitions of their tarps. One question left unasked, but seemingly explicit in this exploration, is whether science (the repetition of actions based on a thesis to catalogue and surmise results) is all that different from ritual? Wheatley gently ratchets up the foreboding atmosphere and then unleashes a cacophony of doom, trippy imagery, sensory shock and blackly comical ultra-violence. Clint Mansell warps and shreds every vestige of hope from us with his overwhelmingly bleak score. Tarantino better look away, as feet are mangled and intruded into with near parodical regularity.

The casting of the small ensemble is proudly diverse, skewering expectations. Fry’s imposing male “hero” is the victim of the bulk of the indignities, the least prepared for the terrors that unfurl and rarely in control of his destiny. Torchia makes a strong impression as the more capable and sensible of the harried survivors. The most subversive piece of casting is working class Squires as the posh, uncaring zealot… it is a coup in British film to see a role that would automatically go to “one of them” be played by one of us, and the results speak for themselves. You wonder just how politically loaded this particular alternative casting choice was in the light of just how corrupt yet inept the establishment have behaved during the pandemic? With the least amount of screentime her Dr Wendle remains the most enigmatic but venal caricature. The always welcome Shearsmith delivers his most disturbing straight genre performance yet… and still manages to land plenty of laughs. Fair to say In The Earth’s lack of resolution and more experimental shifts will not be for everyone, but for those of us who spilled blood for the cult of Wheatley early doors, now we are again rewarded with a fresh pagan scripture, one that demands repeat viewings to unpack and process.

8

Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/

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