In the Earth

With the COVID pandemic raging, scientific researcher Martin Lowery (Joel Fry, "Yesterday") is happy to flee London in order to meet up with Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires, "I, Daniel Blake") at her remote camp to continue their study of the biological network of tree roots and other matter they believe is working like nature’s brain.  He passes his quarantine check at Gantalow Lodge, his starting point, noting an antique print of a tree surrounded by figures park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia, "Midsommar") tells him is Parnag Fegg, a local folklore spirit.  Increasingly strange, even violent things begin to happen on the second of their two-day hike, perhaps because of that spirit “In the Earth.”

Laura's Review: B

After veering wildly from his usual fare with a remake of “Rebecca,” writer/editor/director Ben Wheatley gets back to his literal roots with a trippy horror outing that suggests the psychedelia of of both “Mandy” and his own “A Field in England” with the urban legend of the Blair Witch and the folkloric horrors of “Midsommer.”  Wheatley and his team of technicians have created a very visceral experience, one which probes the mysterious allures of nature with some very weird science.  When Gantalow Lodge’s doctor (Mark Monero, "Free Fire") notes that people can go crazy in these woods, he’s not kidding.

Despite Alma’s cigarette habit, she’s clearly far more able than Martin, who has trouble keeping pace and pitching a tent.  Their conversation is somewhat strained, Martin giving evasive answers to Alma’s questions, especially when it comes to Dr. Wendell, who no one has heard from in several months.  It is Alma who notices litter before they come across an abandoned campsite.  That night, after cinematographer Nick Gillespie points his camera up at some artfully crossed tree branches, the two are attacked in their tents.  Given Alma’s survivalist skills, it is quite shocking when Martin spies only her outstretched hand beneath her collapsed tent the next morning.  Shaken and missing their shoes, they continue on, their progress made more difficult when Martin gashes his foot open.  Then Alma becomes convinced someone is watching them.

That would be Zach (Reece Shearsmith, "High Rise"), a seemingly homeless man reluctant to expose himself to a park ranger because of his illegal squatting in the forest.  He invites them in to his multi-room shelter of plastic sheeting and notes that Martin’s foot needs tending to (‘It’s flapping about’ – not what you want to hear about the sole of your foot!), stating that he’ll sew it up himself as any trip to a hospital would take too long.  Martin’s none too pleased, yet neither he nor Alma seem to pick up on Zach’s mumbled comment to himself about how a little kindness is all that’s required to gain trust, and after they both accept his herbal refreshment they are lulled to sleep with Zach’s hypnotic guitar strumming.  They awaken to learn they’re being ‘marked’ so that ‘he can see you’ and learn he’s been disappointed by Dr. Wendell who wanted to ‘control him.’  When Zach next diagnoses infection in Martin’s foot and states amputation is the only option, it becomes quite clear they’re in the hands of a mad man, confirmed when Martin stumbles backwards over the bodies of the couple from that abandoned camp.  But when the duo finally make it to Dr. Wendle’s, they will learn more than one surprising thing about Zach…

Wheatley has achieved a lot with a little here, the filmmaker having considered his resources before beginning his script.  The movie is beautifully shot, Gillespie creating eerie images of fungal spores shooting into the forest atmosphere or Zach running around at night with flares as mounted lights strobe.  Clint Mansell’s (Wheatley’s “Rebecca”) synth-based score resembles 50’s sci-fi like “Forbidden Planet” and is embedded into Wendle’s work even before we meet her, a low frequency underneath the forest sounds in the finely tuned work of sound designer Martin Pavey ("Kill List," "Free Fire") and sound mixer Rob Entwistle.  Wheatley has achieved a sly parallel in the performances of Shearsmith and Squires, who both speak in reassuringly calm monotone that links their characters’ shared obsession and misdirects from their motives.  His wild climatic montage provides a trip for two, making Ellora Torchia’s heroic Alma a Final Girl in spirit only.    

Robin's Review: B-

Neon releases "In the Earth" in theaters on 4/16/21.