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Film Review: In the Earth

27 June 21 words: Sebastian Mann

The latest from British director Ben Wheatley is a sore disappointment considering its
brilliant potential…

Director: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Hayley Squires
Running time: 107 minutes

Ben Wheatley is one of the finest British horror directors to emerge in recent years. His second feature, the hitman horror Kill List from 2011, and 2013’s kaleidoscopic folk horror, A Field in England, are two of the most unique and authentically creepy films released in the past decade. He’s slowly gone off the boil, directing a tepid adaptation of Rebecca for Netflix that made you long for a return to low-budget, twisted genre thrills.

In the Earth should have been his lauded return. Set in a pandemic-ravaged England – the first of many Covid horrors, no doubt – a researcher (Joel Fry) and a park scout (Ellora Torchia) trek through a large, boreal forest searching for an abandoned test site. Wheatley is telling an almost Lovecraftian tale of a scientist, lost in a forest, where all the trees seem connected as if by a large neural network. They stumble upon Zach (Wheatley regular Reece Shearsmith), a seemingly ordinary fellow who knows only the forest and its folky history. Perhaps the central image of the film is of an ominous standing stone, deep amongst the trees. There’s something strangely unnerving about it, as the camera stares through its hole and into the blackness of the forest beyond.

All of this reminds you why Kill List and A Field in England were so great. The horror is minimal but the atmosphere is densely creepy, peppered with Wheatley’s trademark black comedy. There is a scene involving a small hatchet and a foot that is as gleefully funny as any comedy, and certainly without sacrificing any of the nail-biting tension.

But as the runtime goes on, that tension begins to unravel and peter out. Characters over-explain the simplest of ideas and spooky concepts, and in place of the gasp-inducing thrills of the earlier scenes Wheatley begins to rely more and more on these violently strobic light shows that are set to the most disorientating kick-drum. They’re an assault on your senses – and not in a good way. The first time, it’s a startling and nightmarish burst of intensity that catches you totally off-guard. By the fourth time, it’s starting to become a headache. There’s a warning at the start of the film that these sequences can induce seizures for viewers sensitive to strobe lights, and this warning should certainly be heeded.

The film looks and for the most part feels great, even if it ultimately resembles an awkward first draft

If you reduce In the Earth to its basic elements, there is, frustratingly, plenty to praise. Cinematographer Nick Gillespie’s camera tracks the two wanderers at ankle level, reminiscent of Raimi’s prowling camera in his 1981 cabin shocker The Evil Dead, and the freak outs immediately evoke Trumbull’s mesmerising work on Kubrick’s 2001. Fry and Torchia make for compelling leads, and Shearsmith is great as the eccentric and uncanny hermit.

Composer Clint Mansell (who scored Wheatley’s High Rise and the aforementioned dud Rebecca) is perhaps the star of the show, alongside Gillespie. The film looks and for the most part feels great, even if it ultimately resembles an awkward first draft.

At its best, it’s middling and a little boring. What’s 103 minutes with needless exposition and plodding pacing could be 80 minutes of razor-sharp tension and cosmic dread. For some it may be Wheatley’s return to form, but I’m still holding out.

Did you know? The screenplay was written and filming completed in fifteen days in August 2020, when Covid restrictions were eased in the UK.

In the Earth is out now in cinemas

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