Stepping back down to low-budget filmmaking after the middling Rebecca remake, Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth is a return to form – if not career-best – from the cult adored British director as his latest comes in the form of a pandemic-set thriller in which a scientist, Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) and his guide, Alma (Ellora Torchia) find themselves at the mercy of both the powers of the woods and the oddball couple who reside in it, whilst on a journey to a remote test site.
Admittedly I’ve previously blown hot and cold on Wheatley’s films, but In the Earth has seen me all but 360 on his work, as the 2021 release is a culmination of sorts – one that demonstrates the finest elements from all his prior works, none more so than in the style/visual departments which are particularly chilling. To his credit, that’s a fairly consistent feature from Down Terrace to Free Fire and In the Earth has a certain alienating style to it that you equally can’t help but feel enchanted by. Again, waxing lyrical, the film’s a genuine contender for the most visually arresting experience I’ve had in a cinema – high contrast colours, sweeping angles and plenty of confined space, it’s – as cliché as it might well sound – one designed purely for the setting of a cinema. Progressively experimental throughout the near two hours, the combination of Wheatley’s direction and Nick Gillespie’s cinematography is nothing short of phenomenal and as unsettling as one can get within the horror genre.
A mind-bogglingly psychedelic, visual experience, its story is just as ‘trippy’. Returning to that point on it being a culmination of all things Wheatley, In the Earth to me, managed to keep the tension felt in the finale of Kill List, for its entire runtime, and has a far more appealing and detailed lore than say A Field In England, as far as modern folk-horror films are concerned, this ranks among the best. Constantly flitting between exploring the horrors of the woods’ unhinged couple and the stalker-like presence of Parnag Fegg, Wheatley’s film is so lasting given how uniquely original it is as both a horror tale and film in general – the type to properly immerse yourself in, not to mention how effective a scare it is, employing this constantly uneasy tone and never revealing much of its backstory, I’d genuinely go as far as anointing Wheatley’s direction here as masterful, cementing himself as one of Britain’s finest director’s in this field.
Aside from the more ‘intangible’ aspects, the performances are the glue that sticks all this together. Most impressive of all coming from Reece Shearsmith, going from strength to strength following the sixth series of Inside no. 9, his appearance here is nothing short of absolutely psychotic. Chewing the scenery and then some, his character, the axe-wielding Zach, has such a presence he damn near steals the show from the incredibly endearing Joel Fry. Lured into the whole scenario by his ex-colleague, Fry’s lead character, Martin has a great range: from bumbling fool to panicked, reluctant hero – it’s undoubtedly a career-best and his role really compliments the viewer, playing a great surrogate for the audience and maintaining that constant sense of unknowing. And not to forget Ellora Torchia, who, when tasked with her most significant role to date, plays both a good foil and sufficient quasi-protagonist when she’s called upon. Paramount to inspire solid performances, given how small the cast is, the roster of stars turn in more than what was expected of them and the dynamics work brilliantly in the context of the folk/environmental horror, adding a sense of grounding to a sub-genre that’s more than a little metaphysical.
Easily the horror film of the year so far, In the Earth is one that has to be seen.