Ben Wheatley is a popular name in horror, already delivering one film considered a masterpiece (2011’s Kill List) that I have still yet to see for myself. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Wheatley’s newest, In the Earth, which premiered at 2021’s Sundance Film Festival, before being scooped up by Neon. A complete mess of tones, feeling like some weird experimental exercise, sags the strengths. The final act was by far the most unsatisfying, embracing the intensity of the imagery. It presents more questions than answers in a way that is frustrating considering the directorial strengths.
The world has been overtaken by a deadly, unnamed virus. Now, Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) embarks on a mission to reach a test site that may hold a cure. Park scout Alma (Ellora Torchia) guides Martin along their journey until the point when they make camp. The next morning, the two are left shoeless and bruised, attacked in the night by some unknown assailant. The duo runs into Zach (Reece Shearsmith) as they continue their journey, a strange man who offers them temporary asylum. Martin and Alma realize only too late that Zach’s intentions may be more sinister than they initially appeared. They must work together to have any hope of survival.
Loud and uncomfortable imagery, strobe lights, foot gore, and big axes are just a sampling of the horror smorgasbord on offer. The strobing and chase scenes had my heart racing. I loved the kaleidoscopic effect and trippy visuals. The nightmarish editing is effective, until it becomes overused near the climax.
When the duo reaches the scientist, it becomes considerably less interesting, and the pace slows. It’s not until the final 20 minutes that it picks up once more—if you think you’re getting answers to any of the many mysteries the film presents, think again. The mystery to the unraveling narrative is so promising at the start. I don’t think not explaining is a travesty in itself, but you have to give the audience more than a small nugget to go from. It’s lazy and aimless to fill your movie with great actors and a captivating concept, only to never let anyone in on your secrets. With some films, not oversharing works in a complimentary way. For In the Earth, it’s a quality that makes it seem Ben Wheatley made it all up as he went along.
In the Earth has a sequence near the middle that I absolutely loved, stunning visuals, and good acting, but something about it didn’t connect for me. Gaia, another 2021 film that takes an ecological horror approach, is more effective in nearly every way. This just tries to juggle too many things at once. Is it a commentary on the pandemic, and the current state of our world? Do the messages about humanity being scarier than disease or Parnag Fegg (the ancient forest god) go beyond surface level? Like others have mentioned, In the Earth has pieces of films like The Blair Witch Project, Midsommar and Annihilation. I only wish it was as good as any of those three. In the Earth releases in theaters Friday, April 30th.