Conceived, written, and produced during 2020’s quarantine, In the Earth is the latest mind-bending creation from Ben Wheatley. Set within England during the outbreak of an unnamed, but deadly virus, the story joins scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) at Gantalow Lodge ahead of being guided to a research site deep within the woods. As he and ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) embark on their journey, they quickly find themselves caught up in some seriously sinister shenanigans within the forest walls.
From its opening moments, in which Martin arrives at the facility to be greeted by men clad in masks, In the Earth is an instantly eerie affair. These sequences are merely a representation of how the group ensures that the rampant virus doesn’t arrive into their sterile environment, and is not unlike what has become our simple task of going to the shop or visiting a theme park attraction. And yet seeing it played out on screen has an odd impact on the viewer. It’s a strangely surreal scenario, and one that sets up the rest of the film well, which gets a lot weirder perfectly.
Wheatley builds upon the unease by lacing the lodge-set conversations with discussions about strange things lurking in the wilderness, and the local legend of Parnag Fegg. The writer/director takes great delight in teasing the audience, gently toying with them as they try to get a handle on what they might be about to witness. What follows is a hellish journey that borrows energy and ideas from the heady mixture of The Blair Witch Project, Midsommar, The Ritual, and Annihilation.
Starting with simple birdsong, the sound design is an intricately constructed work of art. Playing out in an almost rhythmic fashion, the soundscape works almost as waves, beginning gently, before building to crescendo, and then continuing to ebb and flow. The birdsong is joined by all the sounds of the trees, though depending on the point in the story, the volume moves up and down, jangling the nerves and creating a luxuriously terrifying aural nightmare. This design is accompanied by Clint Mansell’s dark and haunting synth score blended with chanting, which also sets the tone wonderfully.
Not content to just assault our sense of hearing, Wheatley also throws everything he can at the visuals. The editing, which Wheatley also took charge of, must have taken months to fully realise. The film is peppered with hallucinatory elements made up of what must be hundreds of images, all interwoven around one another. These moments are such a technical feat that it’ll be a sad day if it doesn’t get a nod come next year’s award season. Wheatley uses his editing to add to the story too, inserting black frames of varying lengths along the way, creating an unspecified passage of time, serving to disorientate the viewer further still. Then there’s his heavy (and we really do mean heavy) use of strobe light. Most certainly not a feature for those susceptible to photosensitive epilepsy, there are prolonged scenes of intense flashing lights that once more aid in the viewer’s full immersion into the screen world.
As devilish as Wheatley’s technical work is, In the Earth can only be a success if the performances match, and with this cast he has lucked out. Joel Fry, best known for his work in comedy, breathes realness into Martin, playing him as the common underdog everyman. With Martin, Fry has to access some places that his career hasn’t really called for up to yet, but he proves himself more than capable. His ability to sell pain alone will secure him a future in the realm of horror should he want it. Playing against him is Ellora Torchia as the tough, survival-sensible Alma, who also creates a natural portrayal of someone in this strange situation. Then there’s a career best performance from Inside No’ 9 and The League of Gentlemen’s Reese Shearsmith. Shearsmith is clearly having a lot of fun with his role as the enigmatic Zach; the interplay between the three characters makes for compelling viewing.
Whilst Host was the hero of the Covid-19 Zoom-filmed horrors, In the Earth easily claims the title for the best movie filmed under Covid restrictions. Much like a walk through the woods, In the Earth is full of twists, sharp turns, and unexpected detours. A film that completely consumes and immerses its audience, this may just be the best thing that Wheatley has done.
As with many films, In the Earth is best viewed with as clean and fresh a mind as you can, and whilst the trailer doesn’t give too much away, knowing next to nothing with no preconceptions ensures that Wheatley’s ace in the hole really lands.
In the Earth is out to own now.
This review first appeared on THN.