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IN THE EARTH ****

Directed by Ben Wheatley.

Starring Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Reece Shearsmith, Hayley Squires.

Horror, UK, 107 minutes, certificate 15.

 

Released in the UK in cinemas 17th June by Universal Pictures.

 

As we seem to be tentatively returning to something more resembling normality Ben Wheatley seems to delight in putting us at unease over our current situation from the beginning with his return to cinema screens and full-on horror. IN THE EARTH starts off with sights that have become all too familiar over the past year; scientist Martin, Joel Fry, walks along a quieter than usual country road to a lodge. Warning signs are peppered everywhere whilst it seems that hand sanitiser is applied every thirty seconds while people sneakily pull their masks down to breathe easier when no-one is looking. Pandemic life has now invaded cinema screens just when we thought it was safe to go back and escape from it all.

 

Going into the woods to study crop sustainability and check up on another doctor who has seemingly dropped off the radar, Martin is accompanied by park ranger Alma, Ellora Torchia. A long journey that can only be achieved on foot, a sense of unease emanates from the remote location due largely in part to the legend of Parnag Fegg, a woodland spirit said by locals to call the woods its home. Adding to the disquieting nature of the vast forest is the appearance of hermit Zack, played by Reece Shearsmith, a factor which never usually works out well for anyone who plays opposite him on screen in anything.

 

The films careful pacing in the early stages sets up its characters in a seemingly recognisable environment to our own but once the true nature of Zack is revealed the film ebbs into folk horror territory with occasional glimpses of psychedelia as the woods and whatever is in them makes its presence felt. This study of the hidden occult nature of the English landscape recalls Wheatley’s period horror A FIELD IN ENGLAND, especially in its own fully blown hallucinogenic sequences. Nigel Kneale’s writing is also brought to mind as scientific research is later melded with the supernatural to investigate what the films title implies.

 

 

Conceived and written from the second week of last year’s first national lock down IN THE EARTH was filmed over 15 days in that brief window of freedom late last summer observing safety and distancing rules. This regimented form of film making seems to be a creative shot in the arm for Wheatley after last years out of character Netflix remake of REBECCA and before next year’s big budget sequel to THE MEG. What it is in the dark side of England that brings out the best in him as a writer and director is a subject that will no doubt be examined in depth over the coming years and hopefully it is a theme that he will not abandon now that Hollywood has finally sunk its big budget hooks into him.

 

For Wheatley fans, IN THE EARTH is a pleasure to watch. It’s vintage 70’s stylings from its matter-of-fact title card and science manual styled end credits sit nicely alongside the director’s control of his material that excels equally in disturbing and amusing the viewer. The greatest example here being Shearsmith quickly deciding on a course of axe-based amputation for Joel Fry’s increasingly put-upon character that will have those members of the audience who may have squeamish tendencies about foot trauma gripping their armrests tightly. Clint Mansell’s score is at times shimmering then bleeds out into a full-on sonic assault that bleeds into Wheatley’s trippy visuals delivering one of the years more singular big screen experiences.

 

As fun as it is unnerving as it is intriguing, IN THE EARTH proves that the dark, occult heart of this nation that lurks behind its seemingly normal façade is where Wheatley excels as a storyteller. Let us hope he returns soon once he is done with setting up Jason Statham’s next round against that giant megalodon shark.

 

Iain MacLeod

 

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