More than a year after COVID-19 disrupted the world’s way of living, it’s difficult to fathom why anybody would feel the need to relive that time, particularly when hope finally seems within grasp. With In the Earth — an eccentric bit of eco-horror set during a fictional pandemic — writer-director Ben Wheatley certainly does want you to remember the acute isolation and paranoia of those early months. But after seeing the film itself, what else Wheatley wants isn’t entirely clear. Despite featuring only a few different locations and a handful of characters, the story here is a slapdash collection of horror tropes and gruesome imagery where each moment constantly feels at odds with another.
Where many movies build plenty of momentum early on only to lose steam in their final thirds, In the Earth suffers from the opposite problem, sporting a first act that finds the two central characters wandering aimlessly (and endlessly) through a forest. Picture The Blair Witch Project minus any of the atmosphere that made that film so startling.
Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) is a scientist who’s newly arrived at a research lab tucked away in the remote woods of England to help find the mysterious Olivia Wendle, who is rumored to be conducting ominous-sounding research somewhere in their proximity. Quarantine procedures and masks abound, but the specific virus ravaging the world is never made explicit before Lowery is sent on his way. Alongside Lowery on his trek is regional expert Alma (Ellora Torchia), and one doesn’t even have to key into Clint Mansell’s fretful score to understand something terrible is bound to happen to at least one of them.
From the moment the pair meets a classic Disheveled Recluse named Zach (a bearded and wild-eyed Reece Shearsmith) holed up in the woods, Wheatley (who also edited the film) picks up the pace, as the Recluse is naturally also a tad psychotic, and Martin and Alma find themselves in some real, palpable danger. Sadly, once the tension finally begins to escalate, the narrative itself rapidly loses any sense of coherence, giving only flashes of the brilliance Wheatley showed at the outset of his career.
In the Earth submits its viewers to an eclectic blend of horrors: There’s some body horror here (in perhaps the film’s most queasily effective sequence, involving an amputation), pagan folk-horror (the Recluse worships a vague forest witch in a plot thread that’s never explored), ecological horror (the last 20 minutes rely heavily on POV shots of a seriously bad mushroom trip) and even hints of an Evil Cult. Unfortunately, these are all subgenres Wheatley has tackled to far better effect in his earlier films, and every one of them is given too short of a shrift to make an impact. 2011’s Kill List, thus far Wheatley’s finest hour, was the best Satanic mumblecore hitman horror flick you’ve ever seen, and even as its plot took a few wonky detours, its unbearable tension and horrific imagery kept you onboard. Here, Wheatley loses control almost immediately and never quite gains it back.
“Take a trip with Ben Wheatley,” In the Earth’s trailer beckons. There are undoubtedly some film lovers who will find the idiosyncrasies and unconventional plot structure of said trip refreshing as opposed to interminable (like this reviewer). Wheatley has vision for days, and the cast admirably commits itself to that vision across the board. The problem is that no matter how effective one is at crafting grisly imagery (and Earth contains plenty), it must serve a purpose beyond disorienting the viewer. And by the time the movie hits its final stretch — and viewers are just assaulted with strobe-light images of gore and swirling amoebas for seemingly no rhyme or reason — it’s a trip you’ll likely feel more exhausted from than anything else.