SUNDANCE REVIEW: ‘In the Earth’ (2021) is Anything But Minor

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“The culmination of Wheatley’s folk horror flirtations.”

If one thing was unanimously agreed on coming out of 2020, it was that none of us were ready for the wave of pandemic films. Living through such a strange and colossal historical event, it was to be expected that there would be creative responses, but given just how exhausting the year felt, many of us didn’t feel ready. Enter Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth, which sees us follow two travellers during a pandemic as they find themselves perilously lost in a mysterious forest. Given the types of projects Wheatley has recently attached his name to this was supposed to be a low-key affair, however In the Earth is anything but minor. It instead is the culmination of Wheatley’s folk horror flirtations that began 10 years ago with Kill List.

Throughout his career, Wheatley has made works that align with a particular canon of British art. Folk horror such as The Wicker Man and The Witchfinder General, and psychogeographic writers such as JG Ballard and Iain Sinclair. In the Earth takes this tradition and wears it proudly on its sleeve, with references galore to the likes of Penda’s Fen, The Stone Tape and even perhaps some of the ideas expressed in Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital. It is a horror film that puts the weirdness of nature at its very core. What greater terror is there than the titanic forces of nature. The film explores an almost cultish obsession with understanding, be it through more traditional ritualistic means, or through logic and science. Nature meanwhile manages to be fluid, referred to as a network that connects everything, but also completely ancient and unknowable. Wheatley manages to pack the film full of thematic intrigue, to the point that it may take more than one watch to unpack.

Aesthetically the film is compact. Despite being set in a forest, Wheatley manages to give the film a claustrophobic feel, as if the plants and trees are closing in on us. When things get too much, the film breaks out into gorgeous hallucinatory montage sequences, part psychedelic, part horrifying vision blending strobe lighting and feedback loops with more traditionally psychedelic kaleidoscopic imagery. And the film’s sound design is incredibly impressive; with the sound mixing Martin Pavey creates moments during conversations that the sounds of the forest seem to stop, as if it is listening in on our travellers – a terrifying prospect. And the acerbic music of Pop Will Eat Itself’s Clint Mansell pumped during the film’s second half is loud enough to leave your head throbbing well after the credits have rolled.

The film isn’t without its comedic edge, and this comes mostly from Reece Shearsmith’s haunting outing as Zach, a strange man who lives in the woods. Watchers of Inside No.9 or indeed A Field in England will know of Shearsmith’s mastery of blending comedy and horror, and he is on top form in this film. As well, Ellora Torchia pulls of an impressive display as Alma, a park ranger, and the film’s resident sceptic. Joel Fry is great as Martin; however, the film provides him little depth, and his character development is perhaps where the film lets itself down a little bit. This is of course remedied by a madcap performance from Hayley Squires who gives an almost mad scientist edge to her character.  The ensemble are a rag-tag bunch, with a mixture of muted and more expressive performances that gives the film an unsettling edge.

Wheatley is back to his best with In the Earth, an astounding film that quickly shrugs off the detail of having been made during the pandemic to emerge as perhaps his best since Kill List. Gruesome, gigantic, and abrasive – In the Earth is a shining example that British horror is still going strong.

Dir: Ben Wheatley

Written: Ben Wheatley

Prod: Michael S. Constable, Jeff Deutchman, Tom Quinn, Andrew Starke

Cast: Joel Fry, Reece Shearsmith, Hayley Squires, Ellora Torchia, Mark Monero, John Hollingworth

Header image courtesy of Sundance Institute