There’s just something about the woods, you know?
If you hadn’t guessed from my incessant chatter on The Blair Witch Project and movies of its ilk, I’m a huge fan of horror movies that take place in the forest. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, and there’s something about the thought of the terrors that live in that place – of knowing the enormity of it, knowing the way it smells and how the air tastes, knowing the sound, like crying children, that foxes make in the dark outside your tent – all the more real to me.
So I suppose that, coming into this movie, I was already set up to like it. Ben Wheatley’s latest, In The Earth, is an eco-horror set in the middle of a British nowhere in the midst of a pandemic, as a scientist (Joel Fry) and his guide (Ellora Torchia) start on a perilous journey through the woods to find another researcher working on a potential cure.
Ben Wheatley’s work has always been a little hit-or-miss for me; for every brilliantly inventive U for Unearthed or Sightseers, there’s a listless Free Fire or Rebecca. But honestly, that’s what always draws me back to his movies – you never know if you’re going to get something truly iconic and memorable or not, and the sheer quality of his films when he pulls them off are always worth that risk to me.
And In The Earth is a risk paid off, as far as I’m concerned. It’s been interesting looking over the reactions to this film since I caught it a few days ago – critics seem to be wanking themselves silly to it, whereas audience responses are a little cooler (and some downright disliked the whole thing). And I get that, I do – in this release, Wheatley has made something almost deliberately difficult and evasive, a film that is at times literally hard to watch thanks to those agitated visuals and sonic assault on the soundtrack.
But underneath that, it has some genuinely interesting things to say – and some genuinely interesting ways to deliver them, too. The performances (especially a tight-stretched, unsettling Reece Shearsmith) are universally excellent, and, while the movie does indulge heavily in kaleidoscopic psychedelicia to convey its oddness, it really commits to that in a way that works (in my eyes, at least). I’ve seen plenty of movies that have tried to find something interesting to say about the pandemic that we’re all living through, but In The Earth is particularly engaging in the way that it lingers not really on the impact of the illness itself, but on how it has stripped things back and allowed even the most logical a way back to their roots.
Following an ancient ritual that apparently allows humans to connect and converse with nature itself, In The Earth finds comparison between worship and study, religion and science, art and research in a way that just fascinates me. It’s one of Ben Wheatley’s more complex movies, in my eyes, and one that grounds itself in his distinctly dark sense of humour and British sensibilities to jump off into something deeper.
I have no doubt that my fondness for middle-of-nowheres helps in how much I enjoy this film, but even if you’re strictly a city-dweller, there’s still plenty here that Wheatley manages to make land. An audio-visual assault of a movie, In The Earth slowly unfurls its dark intentions underneath the showy cinematographical and sonic tricks, and I, for one, love what it’s hiding beneath.
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By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Neon)