During quarantine, plenty of us baked bread, some of us picked up diamond painting, a few overdid it on video games, and the fertile imagination of writer-director Ben Wheatley looked around and thought “I can make a horror movie out of this.” Because OF COURSE he can.
As a deadly virus ravages the world, Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) sets off toward Olivia Wendell’s research camp deep in the woods, accompanied by park scout guide Alma (Ellora Torchia). Local lore warns of a mystical being who haunts the forest but the attack on their first night seems a little more pedestrian in nature; they suffer bruises and are left shoeless and confused, but are otherwise fine. Still, they are glad to run into Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a man living off-grid under the leafy protection of the woods. He tends to their wounds and feeds them some dinner and the pair might have gone off the next morning, if the forest didn’t have other ideas. Clearly two grown adults should have been a little more leery of a shady man living alone in the woods, especially after a violent attack, but this is a horror movie, so Martin and Alma make bad, befuddling choices. Granted, even the lead scientist Olivia (Hayley Squires) isn’t what she seems, and between these two wilderness nutjobs, Martin and Alma are in for a very bad time. And that’s saying nothing of the malignant forces of the forest itself, which seem to prevent them from leaving.
Ben Wheatley’s In The Earth is deeply disorienting and unnerving. An ominous score by Clint Manswell mixes synth dread with sounds made by actual leaves and plants found in the arboreal woods outside of London where they filmed. We likely all felt the call of nature during lockdown, and Wheatley’s beautiful visuals are dizzying, especially paired with hallucinogenic kaleidoscopes of lights and colour, and stultifying bursts of noise.
A sense of unease and danger permeates the woods, and we’re kept further off-kilter wondering if the main antagonists are indeed the human ones, or if the intangible forces are perhaps the more worrisome. A cross between Annihilation and The Blair Witch Project, with mystical allusions, ritualistic sacrifice, and necromancy: these dark woods have it all, and Wheatley’s stripped down approach is perfectly spooky and provoking. As alarm mounts, Nick Gillespie’s cinematography gets shakier as he morphs into handheld mode, the camera’s precursor to fight or flight. The imagery becomes more opaque, the woods even more forbidding, and when the end comes, its implications will trouble and disturb you.