In August of 2020, writer/director Ben Wheatley made “In the Earth,” which he shot in the UK over 15 days with a tiny cast.
It premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and marks Wheatley’s first horror film since his acclaimed “Kill List” in 2011. I wish I could tell you I loved it, since the indie filmmaker spirit of innovation went into it, but the screenplay is, at best, a half-baked idea extended into an excruciating ordeal.
Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia star as Martin and Alma, a scientist and explorer who investigate an occurrence deep in the woods. We’re informed that a virus has overcome the Earth and a few characters are wearing masks at the very beginning, providing a welcome timeliness of modern-day dread.
A shocking discovery leads the two protagonists into the care of Zach (Reece Shearsmith), who lives in a tent, off the grid and is truly one with the woods. Surely, he can be trusted, right?
Early on, there’s an ominous reference to “Parnag Fegg, the spirit of the woods,” which is all we need to know that something bad is going to happen. Eventually, our two explorers encounter the kind of monster who declares, “If you struggle, it’ll make it much worse.”
It’s at this point where I wondered, is that all there is?
FAST FACT: Ben Wheatley says living through an actual pandemic could have a curious effect on horror films. “[Movies] are structured as a metaphor for what’s happening, but when the actual thing is happening you don’t need the metaphor so much. So that kind of breaks the zombie genre slightly. But I’m sure it’ll come bouncing back in the next few years.”
“In the Earth” is thoroughly absurd and irritating, a study of madness that derails before we even get to the second act, stumbling into a wacky third act.
The assaultive editing is especially hard to take — the strobe lighting effects and blaring feedback are no fun to sit through. This must be torture to watch on the big screen. Wheatley isn’t afraid to unleash the kaleidoscopic psychedelics, but this has nothing on “Altered States” or “The Trip.”
Martin is a hilariously passive character who just keeps allowing people to do massively painful things to him with his consent. When someone insists on chopping off his toes, he protests the way most people would tell a waiter they’ve been brought the wrong kind of soup.
We share Martin’s irritation when he meekly asks another character, “You’re going to cauterize me?” Needless to say, Fry is no horror movie Scream Queen.
Wheatley always goes for the gory close-ups. Admittedly, there are some effective fake limbs on display here. Admittedly, I’m struggling to find something positive to write.
Next for Wheatley is “Meg 2: The Trench,” which is either a major sell-out or a step up for an acclaimed director who, perhaps, can add something of value to a needless franchise. I wish him luck and he’s clearly talented.
With its effective trailer and creepy posters, the marketing behind “In the Earth” proves better than the movie. The concept of being prisoner to nature and the unforgiving ways of the wilderness was better explored in superior works ranging from “The Blair Witch Project” to “Antichrist.”
A cult following could be in order, but there are few films I can think of offhand that had a stronger fingers-screeching-on-a-chalkboard effect on me.
“In the Earth” belongs in the trash.