Ben Wheatley returns to (his) nature with a pandemic sci-fi scarer starring Joel Fry

In The Earth

Source: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

‘In The Earth’

Dir/scr. Ben Wheatley. UK. 2021. 107 mins

Whatever else lo-fi genre hybrid In the Earth may be, it’s indisputably 100% a Ben Wheatley film. Returning to idiosyncratic terrain after his incongruously decorous Rebecca remake, Wheatley offers a science-fiction/occult scarer that sets its own tone while reworking tropes that he previously explored in Kill List and the supremely offbeat historical drama A Field in England. Shot during the UK’s 2020 lockdown, the film pitches its tent very much as a cult feature  – both in referencing genre favourites and in reasserting Wheatley’s status as an experimental outsider auteur. Whether international audiences will embrace the film’s determinedly English tenor, In the Earth will intrigue genre fans on its world premiere in Sundance, and will appeal to genre-friendly platforms. Neon holds US rights.

Wheatley’s recipe of mushrooms, magick and montage produces a highly spiced mix

Overtly gesturing at Covid anxieties, the film begins at a research centre in England, where masks are worn and quarantine is mandatory: a deadly virus has transformed the world. New arrival Dr Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) is a researcher specialising in crop efficiency, but his immediate mission is to find Dr Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), last heard of conducting experiments deep in a vast forest nearby. Martin begins a long trek on foot, accompanied by forest scout Alma (Ellora Torchia), but before long, their camp is mysteriously raided and Martin has incurred a nasty gash in his foot. Help comes from forest-dweller Zach (Reece Shearsmith) – but he has his own singular eco-freaky agenda. Things take a grisly and knowingly farcical turn – then get weirder still when the travellers catch up with the errant Dr Wendle.

Wheatley’s recipe of mushrooms, magick and montage produces a highly spiced mix. The film’s eclectic brew takes in echoes of British TV and film sci-fi favourites (Quatermass, Doomwatch), alongside multiple folk-horror elements (shades of Blair Witch and even an actual wicker man, albeit a manageably small one). But the film declines to maintain a cohesive story, and while it is clearly Wheatley’s strategy to scatter loose threads, all the better to strand us without a map, viewers could feel short-changed.

Strong tension-building at the start culminates satisfyingly in grand guignol peril, although that is awkwardly undercut by a facetious comic tone - cranked up further at the very end, when one character, horribly wounded with a sharp object, deadpans, “That’s how accidents happen.” And after its effective opening act, the film starts deflating around the one-hour mark, as it moves on to Dr Wendle’s camp and her bizarre experiments.

One underexplored strand – or deliberate red herring? – involves a local female folk spirit, while Zach tells the travellers of an uncanny male presence “in the earth”. In fact, the film is most intriguing in its inversion of stereotypical gender dynamics: not just in contrasting intrepid Alma and vulnerable Martin, but in making Olivia the arch-rationalist technocrat, while Zach believes in art, images and ‘witchy’ folk wisdom.

Things liven up in mystico-environmental fashion, with the action suddenly engulfed in a cloud of fungal spores, but by this point Wheatley has over-egged his toadstool omelette. Things aren’t helped by the mass of poker-faced exposition that Dr Wendle is charged with; when she says, “It’s quite a lot of information to keep track of,” she’s not kidding.

The film impresses in its ingenious use of slender resources. Felicity Hickson’s production design works wonders with basic electronic hardware and a few robust tarpaulins, and this is a very lockdown-friendly production, with its skeleton cast and action that takes place almost entirely outdoors. Nick Gillespie’s photography gives the forest a disorienting aura of labyrinthine infinity, and charges the trippier stuff with authentically lysergic colour.

The acting is engaging too, the cast for the most part adeptly balancing the registers of poker-faced drama and outright absurdity. Torchia (who visited similar territory in Midsommar) exudes tough, no-nonsense energy, while Fry (familiar as the sidekick in Yesterday) plays Martin as confused, likeable, often ineffectual. Returning from A Field in England, Shearsmith – the Gothic comedy specialist from TV’s The League of Gentlemen and Inside No. 9 - wisely plays it straight as Zach, even in the goofier moments. Less sure of her footing is Hayley Squires (I, Daniel Blake, TV drama Adult Material); known for her working-class characters, she’s promisingly cast again type, but sticks to an uninflected posh-girl monotone that makes it seem as if Olivia has nibbled a few too many woodland fungi.

By the time Wheatley, who also edited, concludes with a full-on eye-searing weird-out, it’s hard not to feel that he is retreading old ground – that this isn’t a more arboreally lavish A Field in England 2.0. Whatever the visual payoff, the ending fails to satisfy in straighter narrative terms. Amid a mass of thematic clutter – baleful monoliths, ringworm scars, ancient grimoires, ritual art photography – it just seems as if Wheatley has lost track of the story, in an extreme case of not seeing the wood for the trees.

Production company: Rook Films

International sales: Protagonist Pictures,

Producer: Andy Starke

Screenplay: Ben Wheatley

Cinematography: Nick Gillespie

Editing: Ben Wheatley

Production design: Felicity Hickson

Music: Clint Mansell

Main cast: Joel Fry, Reece Shearsmith, Hayley Squires, Ellora Torchia