Many horror lovers will be familiar with the work of English screenwriter and director Ben Wheatley; I’m personally a big fan of his previous films Kill List from 2011, and A Field in England from 2013. He’s gone on to do more bigger-budget action and comedy films in the years since, and his upcoming project will actually be helming the 2023 sequel to the giant killer shark flick The Meg, but in 2021, during the COVID lockdown, Wheatley decided to return to his roots, so to speak, and make another one of his trippy, folk-horror-tinged independent films. In the Earth premiered at Sundance back in January of 2021 and got a wider release from Neon that spring.
While I have to say right out of the gate that I didn’t love In the Earth as much as I did his previous horror films, there’s enough great stuff here that I would not hesitate to recommend the movie to anyone who is into Wheatley’s singular style. In the Earth bears the closest resemblance to A Field in England, and features similar kaleidoscopic and hallucinogenic visuals, similar pagan-nature themes, and also happens to star Reece Shearsmith in a major role. Unlike A Field in England, In the Earth is not in black and white, is set in the present day, and takes place almost entirely in a forest rather than out in the open. There are also some passing similarities with Kill List, particularly in the squirm-inducing violence and close-ups of revolting wounds and injuries. As far as another film that would be in the same ballpark, there are some passing thematic parallels with 2018’s Annihilation as well.
The story centers around a scientist named Martin Lowery (played by Joel Fry, who I immediately recognized from his role in the 2019 “Beatles-never-existed” film Yesterday). He’s pictured arriving at some remote government outpost in a drizzling rain. There’s apparently a pandemic raging through the country, and though the pandemic in the movie takes its cues from COVID, in that everyone is wearing masks and has to have their temperatures checked before proceeding into the presence of others, it’s left ambiguous as to what this particular disease is, and it’s implied that it may have something to do with the scientific work that Dr. Lowery is there seeing about.
Dr. Lowery himself is something of a mysterious figure; not sinister in any way, but his motives are a tad unclear. He’s soft-spoken and a little awkward, and it’s pretty obvious that he may not be entirely truthful regarding his exact reasons for coming out here. Ostensibly, he has been sent to check up on the work of his colleague, Dr. Olivia Wendle (played by Hayley Squires, who I recognized from the excellent 2018 film In Fabric), who has set up camp a couple of days’ walk from the outpost and hasn’t been responding to letters for several months. Dr. Wendle had been working on increasing crop efficiency by researching the symbiotic relationships between plants and fungi, and has apparently been studying a very large underground network of interconnected plant and fungal life that may be the largest in the country, and which she suspects may operate essentially like a sentient organism.
Dr. Lowery, after hearing from park ranger Alma (played by Ellora Torchia, who played Connie in Midsommar) about a local legend, a spirit of the woods type figure known as Parnag Fegg, sets out for the two-day journey, accompanied by Alma, to find Dr. Wendle and see what she’s been up to.
Along the way, Martin and Alma come across a few unsettling things in the woods, including the abandoned remains of a camp that appeared to have been occupied by a family. Alma says that there have been several disappearances in these woods recently, and no one is really sure why.
The pair move along at a relatively slow pace, mostly because Martin, who had claimed a clean bill of health upon arriving at the outpost, seems slightly ill, perhaps with the unnamed virus that’s been going around. He’s also suffering from ringworm, which he had told the doctor at the outpost had cleared up a week before.
Further, it’s evident that he and Dr. Wendle might have been more than friends and colleagues in the past, explaining why he specifically volunteered to undertake this assignment.
Martin and Alma press on, making small talk, with Martin being slightly cagey the whole time. When they bed down for the night, though, things take a startling turn when they are both attacked by some unseen person who tears apart their campsite and steals their shoes, leaving them unconscious on the forest floor. They both awaken, confused as to who assaulted them or why they were targeted, but choose to continue on. Having no shoes, though, Martin soon slices his foot open rather gruesomely and is forced to hobble along using a large branch as a crutch.
Luckily for them, they stumble across a bearded man named Zach (Reece Shearsmith) in the woods, who has been living illegally on government land. Martin and Alma promise they won’t tell on him, so Zach leads them back to his large tented camp, where he has food, some rudimentary medical supplies, and a few spare pairs of shoes.
At first, everything seems copacetic, but then Zach starts saying weird shit about some kind of something in the woods, and events only get stranger and more horrific from there.
If you loved A Field in England, I can’t see why you wouldn’t enjoy In the Earth as well; it’s definitely its own thing, but it does have a lot of the elements that made A Field in England so great, including the absolutely mind-melting visuals that make you feel as though you’ve been dosed, and some really unsettling sound design. It also has an interesting take on the sort of Gaia hypothesis, or the idea that the earth is sentient and capable of communication, and explores how this idea can be approached from a scientific standpoint as well as from a pagan-spirituality standpoint, and perhaps how inadequate both of those approaches ultimately are.
The film does contain a lot of flashing imagery, and has a warning at the beginning for those who can’t watch those kinds of things. It’s also pretty grisly at times, with gaping bloody wounds being sewn shut in loving close-up, and someone getting a spike through the eyeball. But if you’re into weird, psychedelic, folk-horror freakouts, this is definitely worth a look.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.