IN THE EARTH (REVIEW)
Dir. Ben Wheatley
Reviewer. Martyn Wakefield
Ben Wheatley has cemented his name as a writer/director who brings attention with whatever new title he is attached to. Since it all began with DOWN TERRACE and subsequently KILL LIST (there were smaller breaks in TV before, but this is where he shone) he has left a trail of chaos, madness that is itself an artform like no other. The joys and tears of SIGHTSEERS and then the mushroom stuffed mayhem that was A FIELD IN ENGLAND, boring is not in his resumé. Over time, as the budgets have got higher and the casts more known, it seems that Hollywood really has taken Wheatley under its wing and as a result, an original British talent somehow feels lost in the ether. That is not to say the likes of FREE FIRE and REBECCA are bad films, but they are absent of the unnerving, the subtle uneasiness and mystical journey that his previous films have given us.
And then comes IN THE EARTH.
Set (and filmed) in the midst of a pandemic, IN THE EARTH sees Martin (Joel Fry) and Alma (Ellora Torchia) enter the woods of a nature reserve in search of scientific breakthroughs. As they delve deeper into the woods, as all good horror fans should know, things do not appear as simple as they are set to be and the inhabitants of the reserve soon make themselves present in a film that perfectly blends the tale of English cult and fables with a penchant for gore.
IN THE EARTH really is Wheatley at his best. Horror, low(er) budget and British. The film is tinges with the dry humour you come to expect from staple library of British films such as 28 Days Later and The Descent and really does get close to a cast of warm and relatable characters that are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fry and Squires really shine as they fight the elements at play here and as every corner of the plot unravels, so too do the layers within the movie.
Nothing is ever what it seems, and Clint Mansell’s score really brings that home. What seems, and is, a smaller independent horror film really does hide some well-balanced secrets from Hollywood blockbusters where Wheatley has taken a vacation. The use of light and sound are not only unnerving to the plot and characters within it, but also to the audience who feel as lost as Martin and Alma in the woods.
From the outset, it is noticeably clear to horror hardened fans where the film goes but it certainly gets under the skin and crawls for days after. What Wheatley does with light and sound is nothing short of madness, but it all feels so welcome. Without treading into spoiler territory, the film plays on several horror tropes and blends them seamlessly for a shocking and unnerving conclusion.
The biggest achievement is also how this movie was made in a time when cinema productions are surrounded in baggage, and studios have put the actors front and centre of the industry (we mention no names), here is a film that came about as silently and unknowingly as the antagonist at play here and as a result it feels like that birthday treat, we really were not expecting and yet secretly deserved. A perfect balance between the imagination and fuel held within Wheatley alongside some of the experience working with the big boys has allowed him to craft a much smaller film but one that has plenty of depth. What could have easily have been a "demon in the woods" cliché, feels fresh despite it's inability to completely release itself from the shackles tied to the genre tropes.
Kudos for Wheatley who evidently has not left the genre just yet in favour for mainstream Hollywood (take head James Wan) and while credit to great visionaries is always due, it’s hard to see a member of the family fly the nest for better things and never return. And yet, here we see our favourite bird fly back, and with treats.
Welcome back Ben, and please do not leave it so long next time.
PS. Huge, huge credit for some much welcome airtime from Reece Shearsmith who brings his characteristic wit to a more strait role here. Any screentime with Shearsmith is always welcome here.