Conceived during the first coronavirus lockdown and filmed over the summer, Ben Wheatley’s paranoid minimalist thriller In The Earth has all the elements viewers have come to expect from the director’s films.
Before making its world premiere at Sundance, In The Earth became one of the first movies to head back into production in the UK and while the film doesn’t directly deal with the pandemic, its influence permeates the entire movie. Set in a world that has become increasingly familiar with words like “isolation”, “lockdown”, and “quarantine”, characters don’t have to explain their mask use or need for sanitization stations.
Scientist Miles (Joel Fry) has escaped the city during a third lockdown, only to unwittingly stumble into a new nightmare in nature. He has accepted a position to work with his mentor in a remote nature preserve where he expects to explore the vast interconnected network of plants, roots and spores that control the forest like a brain. With exhausted park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) by his side as his personal guide, the two trudge off on a two-day trek to meet up with the research site’s sole leader, Dr. Wendle (Hayley Squires). Barely into their journey, the pair are ambushed by an unseen assailant who smashes their electronics and robs them of their shoes. Soon after, a kindly forest squatter offers them a helping hand, which acts as a kind of shove into a true body-horror nightmare.
Low budget but not low effort, In The Earth feels like more of a return to form for Wheatley after last year’s bloated and lacklustre Rebecca. While the film lacks the dark humour of Sightseers or Free Fire, its third act might draw comparisons to the psychedelic A Field In England as it moves from survivalist horror to a trippy nightmare.
Here, Wheatley proves he can do a heck of a lot with a small cast, minimal props and a few smoke machines — peppered in with some good old fashioned folklore, of course. Though none of the characters are explored too deeply, they each serve their function to drive the story forward in new and horrifying directions, some of which are decidedly not for the squeamish.
In The Earth may not resonate across mainstream audiences, but it should leave Wheatley’s fans satisfied.
The film screened as part of Sundance 2021, which runs to February 3.