“In the Earth,” the latest film from Ben Wheatley, now on VOD, once again returns to the psychological horror that fueled his other movies like “Kill List” and “A Field in England” with a hint of the social commentary of his J. G. Ballard adaptation “High-Rise.” Add to that a dash of folk-horror and you have a truly timely and mind-bending film that is best avoided by the squeamish.
Most people see a walk in the woods as a quiet respite from the world. But when researcher Martin (Joel Fry) and ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) head out to meet scientist Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires) and perform some tests in the forest during a pandemic, they are sent off with some ominous advice. “People get a bit funny in the woods sometimes,” says Martin’s doctor Frank (Mark Monero). “It’s a hostile environment.”
Sure enough, things go wrong early on. They come across eerie, abandoned campsites, equipment breaks down, Martin becomes ill and they are even attacked in their tent on a tense, sleepless night. The next day help comes in the form of Zach (Reece Shearsmith), an eccentric loner who lives deep in the woods. He offers some painful but much-needed help—this is roughly where the squeamish may want to go make a sandwich and read a book—but soon begins acting erratically with a mix of metaphysical ramblings and homicidal tendencies.
By the time they contact Dr. Wendle, it is unclear who they can trust as their journey into the heart of darkness takes on an increasingly mysterious, psychedelic tone.
“In the Earth” is a trippy movie that nonetheless feels earthbound. No matter how weird the going gets, and it does get strange, masks, isolation, HAZMAT-suits and talk of quarantine and being outside for the first time in forever, ground the story in all too familiar terms. The postapocalyptic vibe is all too real, but the Pagan alchemist rituals, evil spirits and a dollop of paranoia provide the journey into the heart of darkness and the absurdist comedy integral to Wheatley’s style.
Some will call “In the Earth” a horror film, but it isn’t really. The repeated home surgery scenes are woozy-making, and the strobe effects are unsettling, but your pulse will never quicken. Then there’s the under developed characters. You may feel sorry for them when weird things happen, but it’s hard to be invested in them.
What that leaves you with is a movie that offers up a handful of ambitious notions about science vs. religion and some extra-ghastly visuals but, at best, it’s about intellectual dread; all ideas and no emotion.