Sundance 2021: In The Earth – Review

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Ben Wheatley has gone back to his roots during lockdown with horticultural horror In The Earth which debuted at Sundance.

As the world searches for a cure to a disastrous virus, a scientist and park scout venture deep in the forest for a routine equipment run.

Most films created during the pandemic have focused on the confinement of Lockdown (Host, Malcolm & Marie). Conversely Wheatley looks to The Great Outdoors and following the words of Stephen Sondheim, goes “Into The Woods”.

The pandemic (or a pandemic), is established at the beginning of the movie with the now all-to-familiar sights of masks, swabs and social distancing. However the deadly virus is not actually the source of the horror. Merely the macguffin that leads the characters to their potential doom.

Researcher Martin and guide Alma venture into the forest in search of his colleague who has gone radio silent but are attacked one night and stripped of their tents, equipment and shoes. As they hobble on they meet a loner living in the wild played by Reece Shearsmith. He offers to help but when talk turns to Parnag Fegg, a local folktale that people in the area use to scare the children from wandering off after dark, his true intentions burrow up to the surface.

Anyone familiar with A Field In England knows Wheatley is adept at making the natural world feel scary and threatening. He has also lost none of his ability to shock. Audience members with aversion to ocular or foot injuries may need to look away on several occasions.

High praise to Shearsmith who manages to tread the fine line between horror and humour. Which will come as no surprise to fans of Inside No. 9. Offering up moments that are scary but also tinged with the blackest of black comedies. Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia also subvert the genre tropes with Fry becoming the fragile damsel-in-distress and Torchia taking the toughened proactive role.

Sadly once the protagonists find the mysterious Olivia’s camp, this is where the film starts to lose sight of the woods for the trees.

The final third gets bogged down in scientific jargon and exposition, wrapping itself in narrative knots it can’t undo. Dig a little deeper under the impressive aesthetic and there is not much going on under the surface. It feels like Wheatley had several ideas as to what the ultimate danger was but never made a final decision. Instead relying on hallucinatory visuals designed to disorientate the viewer from a head-scratching and underwhelming conclusion.

This is a welcome return to form for Wheatley but whilst visually stunning the end result is slightly half-baked. It was conceived, written and shot in two weeks during 2020 but one cannot help but think that with a little more time spent on the script, In The Earth could have the mother (nature) of Lockdown horrors.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Director: Ben Wheatley
Stars: Joel Fry, Hayley Squires, Reece Shearsmith, Ellora Torchia
Runtime: 100 minutes
Country: UK

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