Foot In It
In The Earth
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Warning: Some spoilers buried within.
"It’s a psychological problem with humans. They want to make stories out of everything." - Olivia
You know, I have a lot of time for Ben Wheatley and he always comes across well in interviews. But I do find him a little hit and miss in terms of my reception to his films. Sometimes I find his films absolutely unforgettable, astonishing and worthy of multiple viewings, such as Kill List (reviewed here) and Sightseers (reviewed here). Other times, well, I find certain films of his to be the opposite of that and I don’t ever plan on revisiting them again, such as High Rise (reviewed here) and Free Fire (reviewed here).
His new film, In The Earth is more leaning towards the former camp as far as I’m concerned... I absolutely loved the build up but I found the end to... not be as satisfying as I’d hoped although, when things were similarly left deliberately ambiguous in Kill List, I couldn’t get enough of it.
The story is set in the present day in the UK during a third lockdown of a pandemic... I mean, Wheatley doesn’t actually mention the coronavirus by name because it will obviously date it too much and the virus can be seen as just another part of the fiction in years to come... but it’s pretty obvious. And we have main protagonist Martin (played by the always brilliant Joel Fry) arriving at a Holiday Inn which is set up as a kind of base camp near where a doctor, Olivia (played by Hayley Squires) is supposed to be doing experimental research in the nearby forest, a couple of days out on foot. However, she’s gone missing and Martin is going to be guided to where she is supposed to be by a ranger, Alma (played by Ellora Torchia), a couple of days out on foot. During the process he learns about the ancient, local Earth spirit Parnagg Fegg, gashes his foot open on a piece of deliberately buried flint and also encounters a somewhat mad and dangerous character called Zach (played by Reece Shearsmith). And that’s all I want to say about the plot set up, because I think I want to avoid spoilers but, I can tell you, the film gets quite intense and intriguing as the story wears on.
Why? Well, the sound design for one thing. There’s the constant clatter of snapping twigs and weird bird call in the forest and, at one point early on in the proceedings it gets so in your face... well, in your ears... that I thought the director was doing this so he could use stealth to bring on the scares later on, when our ears get used to the audio mix. Well, as it happens, sound does play an important part in the film, not just in the way it does normally but also in terms of a plot point later in the story.
Secondly, there are the actors. They’re all absolutely amazing in this. If there’s one thing I’ve seen, even in the films he’s directed which I didn’t much care for, it’s that Ben Wheatley can bleed some beautiful performances out of his cast and this movie is certainly no exception to the rule. And there’s an actress in this, the aforementioned Ellora Torchia, who I’ve not seen before but, I can tell you, when she’s on the screen you can’t take your eyes off her. She has real presence in this movie, for sure.
For a film which is set bang up to date, being shot during the corona plague as well as using it as the ‘norm’ of the outside world from which the central characters are shielded somewhat, it also feels like it’s ‘of its time’... but while also simultaneously feeling like it’s somehow teleported itself from the 1970s. I mean, the opening shot of the title card positively screams 1970s folk horror and there are some other moments in the film which really harken back to my childhood years. Also, the way the story themes are tackled... and I absolutely mean this as a compliment and I’m sure someone like Wheatley would take it as one... it made me think of Nigel Kneale and the way he would sometimes blend modern science with folklore and supernatural elements. There are certainly small hits of Professor Quatermass in here, I think... not to mention a more than healthy homage to The Stone Tape (which wasn’t one of my favourites of the great Kneale’s work and I think Wheatley possibly does him one better here).
And talking of 70s... there’s a wonderful moment when Martin and Alma are in Zach’s tent and the walls of the tent are a deep red while the lighting of the characters and other objects is mostly a kind of strong, almost lime green. If this colour scheme here make you think of Mario Bava or even Dario Argento... well, yeah, it’s Ben Wheatley at the helm so I’m sure it’s supposed to.
The film features some nice surrealistic imagery and also a lot of ‘altered consciousness’ moments throughout too. One sequence, where one of the characters is trying to get past an ‘obstacle’ in a hazmat suit with a rope attached to her so she can be pulled back if need be (yeah, think The Midwich Cuckoos via Village Of The Damned, the director obviously likes his references) almost felt this was this film makers version of the famous ‘into the monolith’ sequence near the end of Kubrick’s 2001 - A Space Odyssey. I sat there watching it and thinking, yeah, if anybody is in the audience and they’re doing drugs, they’re going to have such an interesting time with this movie.
Finally, the film has a score by Clint Mansell and a) it's very good and b) Invada Records are currently saying there will be a CD release of it soon... which frankly, was the main thing which got me hooked into watching this one in the first place, the potential of a score CD in the works. If there’s a film coming out where the score isn’t available on a shiny disc and another one where a shiny disc is imminent, I’ll watch the movie that’s going to have the physical score release any day of the week.
Wheatley does a phenomenal job here and, frankly, I’ll probably grab the Blu Ray release of this one too at some point (and see if I like the ending better). That ending is, I can tell you now, growing on me a little as I revisit the film in my head while writing this review and, while it can be interpreted any number of ways, I believe, it’s also not leaving things as up in the air as they might have been. If the director had rolled his wonderful end credits sequence just a minute or two early, I feel I would have had a much more negative experience with the film. As it is, In The Earth is another of Ben Wheatley’s ‘great British movies’, as far as I’m concerned and, well, this one will get a recommendation from me to pretty much most people I know, if they’re into horror movies... and possibly a warning to those people I know who get freaked out by the genre, for sure.