Thus far, two kinds of pandemic films have emerged: those that comment directly on the radically altered context of our lives, and those that take all of these limitations as a filmmaking challenge. Ben Wheatley has taken the latter route with In the Earth, a workmanlike horror-in-the-woods film that graciously embraces the challenge of making films in the pandemic. There is a hardy quality evident to Wheatley’s approach, it contains all of the craft that was absent in his regrettable revision of Rebecca from last year. Something about all these limitations have reawakened the artist inside of him: Wheatley’s horror is all clever outdoor constructions; social distance applied for scientific and plot sensitive reasons; and most interesting of all, devolves into a flashy phantasmagoric freakout by the end.
The film is about two researchers, Martin (Joel Fry) and Alma (Ellora Torchia) getting lost in the woods. The feeling is that Mr. Wheatley’s film is also lost in the woods. It was written during the initial weeks of lockdown and carries many of the themes we’ve experienced for the last year, but then leverages our perception of them for some dark spirit-in-the-woods material. When the two characters are attacked, en route to track down Martin’s old flame and research partner, their creepy backwoods aggressor (Reece Shearsmith) sets off of a plot of angry forest gods, timberland terror, and moderately visceral physical horror scenarios.
The picture is deeply unfocused and uneven. It’s a ton of fun getting lost in the woods but the whole runtime, we may wish for some semblance of internal structure, some directive that brings the plot together in some meaningful way. It might work most coherently when the crew are stumbling around the woods or held captive in Doomsday Prepper tents, but it does not entirely work with the radical and incomprehensible ending. To be clear, the value of horror is often about what we do not understand. What is out there, lurking around. Aspects that do not have clear answers. Charitably, it does feel like the film succeeds when it throws all caution to the wind and the plot into a blender, when it all devolves into a strobing light rave party of menacing woodland torture.
It’s called In the Earth and the movie truly feels born of the land. The forest photography is rather nice and always provides something to look at. There’s a grit and tenacity behind the making of the thing, too. It was shot quickly and efficiently, and feels like it was. It’s In the Earth and of the soil. If it’s faux science and occasionally lame rationalizing of COVID-safe shooting protocols do not ward off an audience, there is an audience potential here. It’s the kind of horror film that would usually show at festivals and then we would all compare notes about the bizarre ending and try to make sense of it together. Released on demand, it can serve as a mild genre interest with a relatively low ceiling of quality.
There is a lot to be said for economy in horror filmmaking. It’s a genre where limitations provoke very interesting results. Such is the case with In the Earth. It fluctuates between the most straightforward kind of lost-in-the-woods film and incoherent psychobabble of the most enjoyable order by the end. Genre advocates will certainly find some light pleasure here. If our lives weren’t already social horror stories perhaps Wheatley’s new film would attract a small cult audience. Instead, I predict it’ll be a loosely satisfying one-time outing for fans of the director’s prior work and probably not too much else. There is certainly a place for economy horror stories, and the pandemic provides just the right amount of limitations to see some truly novel experiments. In the Earth is onto something special. It rarely reaches higher than it aims but it signals the great potential of the moment: even in a pandemic, there is still room to tell weird stories.