With the unfortunate exception of “Songbird,” which tried to wangle a Michael Bay movie out of the pandemic by turning the pandemic into a Michael Bay movie, the first wave of films written and shot during COVID have all been as confined as any of the people watching them from home. But leave it to Ben Wheatley — an irrepressible British filmmaker whose best movies (“Kill List,” “High-Rise,” “Sightseers”) have always felt like claustrophobic reactions to the psychic horrors of modern living — to zag where the likes of “Locked Down,” “Coastal Elites,” and “Malcolm & Marie” have zigged, and leverage our suffocating new status quo into an open-air horror movie that will make you never want to go outside again.
When it was first announced that Wheatley had taken it upon himself to a shoot a pandemic movie of his own last summer, the director said his response to the virus was provoked by “the datedness he perceived in the titles released to VOD that couldn’t take the new status quo into account.” The finished product, however, suggests that “In the Earth” was just as pointedly made in anticipation of the streaming fare that would take the new status quo into account — the kind of films that might react to the crisis as if COVID ripped a brand-new hole in the social fabric, as opposed to simply poisoning the air that flows through the holes that have always been there.
The result is a micro-budget horror movie every bit as ancient and elemental as its title suggests; a gnarly and largely satisfying nightmare about someone who tries to leave the coronavirus behind, only to wander into the dark heart of an eternal struggle. If Wheatley felt strange that so many other directors were suddenly eager to follow in his footsteps, or found it maddening to imagine that many of those people would think of themselves as pioneers, he’s followed his lifeless Netflix adaptation of “Rebecca” with a return to form that gets so lost in the woods that no one else could ever hope to retrace its steps.
“Game of Thrones” alum Joel Fry stars as Dr. Martin Lowery, a scientist who arrives at the remote Gantalow Lodge on his way to meet up with his mentor in the vast nature preserve beyond so that they can continue their research into the mycorrhizal network of tree roots and fungi that controls the entire forest like a brain. Olivia hasn’t been heard from in months, but at this point in the pandemic — which isn’t necessarily our pandemic, but seems recognizable enough regardless — everyone is used to feeling cut off from some of the people who once felt closest to them, and Martin doesn’t seem like the type to catastrophize.
We’re all a bit numb by now, aren’t we? Perhaps that’s why our hapless protagonist doesn’t sweat the fact that his parents are still ailing from the disease back in Bristol, and why he isn’t the least bit concerned by the horrifying pagan artwork on display in the lodge. Alma, the chain-smoking park ranger tasked with leading Martin on the two-day hike to Olivia’s camp, insists that Parnag Fegg is just a local folktale that people in the area use to scare the children from wandering off after dark. Thanks to a no-nonsense performance from “Midsommar” victim Ellora Torchia, who plays Alma with the blunt strength of someone who’s long since exhausted the woods of their mystery, you might even believe her for a minute or two.
But this intrepid duo has barely wandered off the grid before Alma is given some new reasons to be nervous. An abandoned tent is the first ominous sign of trouble; the pattern of painful red bumps that form on Martin’s arm is the second. After that, Wheatley ditches the slow-burn approach for less ambiguous scares, as a mysterious enemy ambushes Martin and Alma under cover of darkness, beating them senseless from outside their tent and stealing their shoes he/she/it flees the scene. That’s practically a good night’s sleep compared to what the forest has in store for these two from there, as Martin is bludgeoned, infected, and peeled into a new poster child for the giddy sadism of the body horror sub-genre.
Without giving too much away, let’s just say should probably think twice before accepting an herbal drink from a feral-looking stranger who lives in the woods and seems just a little too worried that you might take a peek at his weird pagan “workshop.” (Reece Shearsmith does an endearingly sinister job of splitting the difference between “the devil made me do it” and “I like amputating things.”)
The butter only continues to slide off the knife from there, but even at this early juncture in Wheatley’s al fresco freakout, “In the Earth” is an impressive exercise in cinematic resourcefulness. As the glossy and well-furnished blandness of his “Rebecca” made clear, Wheatley’s best films mix a black-witted nihilism with the anarchic fun of a kid messing around with an 8mm camera in his parents’ backyard. All he really needs are a few ominous props, a handful of committed actors, and a good excuse to make things go squish — everything else feels like it just gets in the way (though having Clint Mansell around to pitch in a maniacal synth score doesn’t hurt). So at a time when most people are scrambling to find new ways of shooting things, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Wheatley’s pandemic quickie is suffused with the “can-do” confidence of a home-field advantage.
“In the Earth” doesn’t feel compromised in any critical way, or ask for the asterisk that other COVID movies depend on to explain away their defects. This is the work of someone who’s always been more in his element when making something out of nothing, and that energy is especially well-served to a story about the fundamental human impulse to do the same.
None of its four major characters are particularly nuanced (even if Wheatley’s cast is skillful enough to suggest otherwise), but all of them are bound by a collective need to find order in the chaos of an environment that doesn’t always seem to make sense to its stewards. When the Earth has something to say, how does it make sure that we get the message? Does it want to speak to us, or does it want to speak through us? Wheatley knows that half the fun of making such unbridled “what the fuck?” cinema is asking semi-rhetorical questions that you only need to answer with gallons of blood and a sharp cut to black.
A third act pivot away from survival horror and toward the thought-collapsing psychedelia of “A Field in England” might dampen the fun of Wheatley’s medieval lore and distract from the interpersonal dynamics that make the movie feel less threadbare than it must have been on the page, but this thing only grows more hypnotic as it veers into violent abstraction. Wheatley caps things off by pulverizing the most basic elements of light and sound into such a floridly visceral emulsion of suggestive horror that it feels like he’s showing you nothing and everything at the same time.
“In the Earth” may not run deep enough to grow roots, but it’s the first COVID movie that dares to think beyond what it can see in front of its face, venture into the world outside, and confront how terrifying and necessary it’s going to be to commune with nature on new terms when the nightmare is over.
“In the Earth” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Neon will distribute it in the U.S. later this year.