When I reviewed the remake of Rebecca last year for my friends at Behind the Rabbit Productions, I mentioned that director Ben Wheatley was known for having an eye for horror, but that it certainly wasn’t realized with that toothless retelling of an all-time cinematic classic. However, his follow-up, In The Earth, promised to be more of a return to form, getting back to the skill he displayed in films like Kill List.
And for what it’s worth, there are some pretty decent moments in the film, as well as a few obvious homages that play better than whatever he was doing with the CGI flock of birds in Rebecca. At the same time, though, there are some pretty gaping holes in logic and story, possibly due to the very rushed production schedule. It’s one thing to be minimalist, but oftentimes it feels like Wheatley’s story is as lost in the woods as his protagonists.
Right off the bat, I will say that there are three things that I absolutely loved about this movie. Two of them come right at the beginning, and the other lasts throughout, though you can tell very early the direction that element is taking. First, after the briefest of corporate logos for NEON films, the opening is just a simple title slate. Beautiful. No ominous music, no minute-plus of production companies fellating themselves, just a straight-up slate with no implications. It reminded me of the simple, blue opening crawl of The Shining, although there was ominous music to accompany Kubrick’s classic to set the mood.
Conversely, In the Earth sets it by being upfront and matter-of-fact about one of the crucial elements of the film. This is the second welcome bit. Before we even start, there’s a disclaimer on screen about the possibility of triggering epileptic seizures through flashing lights. First of all, I’m just appreciative of the warning. There are so many movies and companies that wouldn’t have bothered. Some would even try to market the film by saying it scared people so much it caused convulsions. Instead, Wheatley et al warn you of what’s to come, gives you an out if you can’t take it, and demonstrates a responsibility for their own product.
And that leads to the third instant kudo. There are no jump scares. After watching The Unholy, I instituted a new rule for horror films where I would start lowering the grade cap if a movie relied too heavily on this tired tactic, as so many often do. But here, the “Jump Fail” system does not need to be invoked, because there are no jump scares at all. There are a few sudden moments of tension, all of which are highlighted by sound effects or the aforementioned light flashes, but we’re prepared for most of them thanks to the disclaimer, and those we don’t know are coming are genuinely surprising and germane to the plot, and not just a cheap gimmick to startle us. As such, this film is eligible for an “A” grade. It won’t get it, but I appreciate the discipline nonetheless.
Anyway, on to the story. Near an English forest, Dr. Martin Lowry (Joel Fry of Game of Thrones and Yesterday) comes to a quarantined cabin, on assignment to deliver supplies to his colleague, Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires from I, Daniel Blake), who is working on an experiment deep in the woods and hasn’t been seen for months. She’s studying the area, which contains fungal spores that leave the land extra fertile. After being aggressively decontaminated and tested for infections (ringworm becomes a minor plot detail), Martin heads into the forest, accompanied by a park ranger called Alma (Elloria Torchia), who tells him it will be a two-day hike to reach Dr. Wendle’s camp.
Okay, we’ve got an excellent setup here. Dr. Wendle is in a very remote location, where conveniently cellular reception does not reach, allowing for limitless possibilities vis-à-vis the inability to go for help when something inevitably goes wrong. There’s exposition about a forest creature and artwork depicting what appears to be a Celtic demon of some kind, which can create a convincing monster if done right. The combination of all the masks and detox with a mystical Druid stone and amplified nature can even work to make this into a pandemic allegory where the Earth fights back against man’s excess. The film itself was written and shot in just 15 days’ time, with the bulk of production work being done from the staff’s homes or inside a quarantine bubble, so clearly there are tons of directions to take with this idea, and it was clearly in Wheatley’s mind when he embarked on the project.
Once the trek through the woods begins, though, things start to go awry before spiraling completely out of control from a narrative standpoint. About halfway to Dr. Wendle’s place, Martin and Alma are attacked in their sleep, with their unseen assailant thumping them on the head a bunch of times and taking their shoes. Walking barefoot through the woods, Martin suffers a seriously gory injury – the first of many for the poor guy – and they encounter a homeless man living in the area called Zach (Reece Shearsmith, co-creator of the wonderfully bizarre and surreal The League of Gentlemen), who lures them into his camp and takes them hostage, posing them for photos to appease the forest deity depicted in the earlier artwork, sort of like an homage to The Wicker Man.
Okay, so now it’s torture porn/survival horror. Not the best of ideas, but I’m still on board. We’re creating good atmosphere, Zach’s a delightfully batshit character, and there’s one incredible scene of gore that had the audience wincing along with every tense moment. He’s got something there. Wheatley’s got something there. But when Dr. Wendle finally enters the picture, however, it all goes pear-shaped, as the story falls completely apart with wonky pseudo-science, cabin fever, and chemical intoxication montages that feel like a bad faith combination of Requiem for a Dream and Midsommar in an apparent attempt to go out on trippy visual metaphors like 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it just doesn’t work.
There are some really great elements at play here. Wheatley certainly knows how to shoot horror, and the multi-chambered campsite tents add a labyrinthine vibe to the escape attempts, because even we in the audience can never quite get the layout of the area. Dr. Wendle’s camp is surrounded by strobe lights and speakers tied to trees that give off booming sound effects that will shake you in your seat. When Zach lights up a flare, it’s done in a cool slow-motion way with these little flitting fibers digitally added to the blaze that reasonably mimics the idea of a mycelial network that’s discussed at parts of the film.
These are all awesome images, but just like Hereditary, it’s in service to a plot that has no idea where it’s going. It’s a little more structured than Ari Aster’s debut, but it’s clear that Wheatley couldn’t settle on a path for the story or a thematic style. It’s more like he came up with a lot of cool shots and hoped the story would fall into place around them, and sadly, it doesn’t.
Is this a parable about the pandemic? Is this survival horror? Is this an updated Blair Witch Project? Who knows? This is the major issue with pulling all this together in just two weeks. Wheatley and his skeleton crew went from point to point, setting up really good visuals, but never allowed themselves the time to figure out if it made any sense. It’s sad, because with even a competent script, I’d wholeheartedly recommend this movie, and especially to see it in a theatre, mostly because if you watch at home, the sound design might really piss off your neighbors. But unfortunately, I just can’t. Wheatley had the makings of a horror feast with a relentless assault on your eyes and ears, but it’s also an assault on narrative logic, which damns it to mediocrity.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What type of horror films do you like best? Would you ever voluntarily walk for two days to get anywhere? Let me know!