In The Earth: Film Review

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In the 21st Century Folk Horror Revival, several names keep coming to the fore, among those are the partnership of British film director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump. Together they have previously brought us the new wave of folk horror gems Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013) as well as the tangentially associated Sightseers (2012) – a darkly humourous film that is akin to Mike Leigh’s classic 1976 BBC play Nuts in May but on PCP. In the years between then and now Wheatley and Jump have ventured into the world of the Urban Wyrd with their adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise (2015) as well as working separately on a variety of works.

When rumours began to be whispered around that Wheatley was returning to the old pastures of pastoral terror, the ears of folk horror folk began to prick up. Then the trailer dropped for In The Earth with its flashing psychedelic images, discordant noise, glimpses of folksy woodcut art and a monolith that hearkens back to the cult ‘children’s’ book and TV series of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. The tag line of the trailer invitites us to go on a Trip with Ben Wheatley and why the Hell not? I’m up for that.
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And so it must be assumed that Mr Wheatley may have a fascination for hallucinogenic mushrooms as they play a part in his alchemical civil war drama A Field in England and play a greater role in In the Earth.
The premise of the film sees Dr Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) venture out from a state of quarantine imposed upon urban areas due to an unspecified viral pandemic to a research facility in a forest in the south west of England. The shadow of the pandemic is not only cast over the health and safety measures Martin must undertake and the scientific research prevalent in such times but it also manifests in the social awkwardness and behaviour of folks who live in conditions of isolation and distance. Martin as such is a non-typical protagonist, he is not some confident self-assured doctor-come-hero of numerous horror and sci-fi films but a quiet, anxious individual. In seeking out his ex-lover and scientific partner Dr Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who is researching the mycorrhizal (symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants) network beneath the forest which has a higher than normal soil fertility, Martin is assigned the trekking assistance of a woodland ranger named Alma (Ellora Torchia). Before setting off into the woods, seeing a large woodcut artwork upon the wall of the cabin recommissioned as a research base, Alma informs Martin about the local lore and belief in a sylvan spirit named Parnag Fegg.

Whilst camping in the woods, the pair are subjected to a nocturnal attack by an unseen assailant. They are not badly hurt but the attacker has stolen their shoes, making an already precarious journey more troubled still. This is darkened further by Martin tearing the sole of his foot open upon sharp terrain. All is not lost however as a bedraggled man Zach who lives and works as an artist in the woods, approaches them and offers them food, drink, shelter and footwear.
he even stitches up Martin’s wound. This rudimentary arboreal operation is one of several scenes where gore and the ‘ouch-factor’ comes into play. As with Kill List, Wheatley and Jump’s ‘Arthurian’ gangster movie (it is much better than that description sounds) violence and injury are graphically depicted in In The Earth.
However as may not be totally unexpected there is more to Zach and his art than may first appear.

After a brutal hallucinogenic nightmare unfolds, Martin and Alma against all odds reach the research camp of Dr Olivia Wendle, whom it transpires her study has progressed beyond soil fertility and is also trying to reach the ‘consciousness’ of the mycorhizzal mat – the spirit of the earth. Though she is attempting to invoke an animistic presence through science (utilising sound and light – which significantly shapes the aesthetic of core sections of the movie) rather than art like Zach, her practices are ritualistic and it becomes apparent that her and Zach are perhaps estranged but are not strangers to each other.

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Sound and image are very important factors of the film as can be seen from the Art and Sound department’s roll call of talent which reads as a folk horror revivalist / hauntologist’s dream – Richard Well’s woodcuts, Julian House’s credits sequence, camera work & cinematography by Nick Gillespie and musical / soundscape composition by Clint Mansell.
One scene that will likely live on in future discussion of Wheatley’s work alongside the culminating ritual of Kill List and the magic mushroom sequence in A Field in England, is the passing of a hazmat suited Alma into a mist of fungal spores. The image of her affixed to a rope is reminiscent of the tent scene in a Field in England and both have a symbolic resonance of an emerging child still attached to the umbilical cord suggesting a birth or rebirth.
It must be noted however that any viewer who may experience seizures when exposed to flashing lights or certain sound wavelengths should proceed with great care if at all, for numerous segments of the film are something of a sonic and stroboscopic assault.

But is it all style over substance? Not quite, but I do feel that the film would have benefited from greater input into the writing from Amy Jump (whose role on this film is given as a Producer credit) and /or a longer period of time taken by Wheatley on the plot development (he only spent 15 days on the script-writing). This is particularly pertinent to the ending which could in my mind have been both stronger and stranger. Part of both Kill List and A Field in England’s strength (though it would annoy some viewers) is the ambiguity. Too much yet oddly maybe not enough is revealed with In the Earth. Much of the plot is quite predictable and follows a familiar enough path. It would have been better perhaps to follow wander lines and go further into the abstract and see where the film would end up.

However this is a film made in strange times under different conditions. It will be noted in future as a work that was seeded, grown and bloomed in the days of the Covid19 plague. It offers further reading potential in that area and it has to be said that it does deliver scenes of both weird (and wyrd) beauty as well as brutality. The characteristics and dynamics of the characters are a bit off the beaten track which is interesting however and Shearsmith is particularly sharp casting. The shows The League of Gentlemen and Inside No 9 display his versatility and his role of Zach is the most interesting in the film, though at times the visuals portraying him are suggestive of The Shining’s Jack Torrence escaping into the wild.

Sundance 2021 Review: IN THE EARTH, Mother Nature Gets Super Freaky

In conclusion, I liked In the Earth and with subsequent viewings I feel my appreciation for it could possibly grow more, but I would have liked more in terms of plot development which prevented me from experiencing love at first sight. But certainly it is an intriguing and welcome addition to both Wheatley’s oeuvre and the folk horror canon. I imagine though that it will be a film that divides audiences.

Reviewed by Andy Paciorek

Dark Films for a Dark Season

As we move further into the dark as long nights draw in ever closer, we bring to you some movie suggestions that go against the grain somewhat of mainstream horror. Films that burn slow and burn both beautifully and grotesquely like candles made from human tallow. Films that haunt the mind …

In no particular order …

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The Wind (2018) –

Directed by Emma Tammi. Written by Tessa Sutherland.
Cinematography by Lyn Moncrief

In New Mexico in the late 19th Century, two couples strive to make a life for themselves on the wild frontier. As the story unfolds in a non-linear motion, we see their relationships and lives fall apart as something else stalks the threshold.

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The Lighthouse (2019)
Directed by Robert Eggers. Written by Robert & Max Eggers.
Cinematography by Jarin Blaschke.

The simple tale of a Lighthouse keeper and his new assistant that get marooned on the rock in a raging storm. But even this wild weather is not as tempestuous as their relationship which descends into madness and a Promethean struggle over control of the light. Sirens and seagulls make their presence felt too on that ocean blasted crag. The dialogue in this film is coarsely mellifluous especially as it drips off the tongue in a sterling performance by Willem Dafoe. Robert Pattinson also firmly shakes off his twilight sparkle in the shit and kerosene of this brilliantly bat-shit crazy film.

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Marrowbone (2017)
Written & Directed by Sergio G. Sánchez.
Cinematography by Xavi Giménez.

Set in rural Maine, but actually filmed in Spain, this film does have the feel of Spanish classics such as The Devil’s Backbone and Spirit of the Beehive – the sense of childhood sentimentality with a bitter under-taste of something strange, perhaps sinister.
A single mother and her 4 children move from England to start a new life in what seems to be a haunted house but as her health worsens the family find out that their past is more haunting still.

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The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)
Written & Directed by Osgood Perkins.
Cinematography by Julie Kirkwood.

This segmented film focuses around three young girls whose lives are fatefully entwined. As the boarding school they attend in upstate New York breaks up for a February vacation, Rose and Kat are left behind with only the company of two nuns. Rose has chosen not to return home as she fears she may be pregnant whilst the younger girl Kat’s parents fail to arrive to pick her up. It is apparent that Kat is a troubled girl, who feels lonely and isolated even when there are more girls around, but as her stay in the school progresses, her behaviour becomes stranger still.
Joan, the third girl in the story, is a creature of mystery. We first encounter her as she escapes from a psychiatric hospital and is offered a lift by a man and his wife as she sits in a bus station. The darkness and heaviness of the winter permeates throughout this film invoking a strange sense of tension.

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Gwen (2018)
Written & Directed by William McGregor
Cinematography by Adam Etherington.

During the Industrial Revolution a woman struggles to raise her two daughters and run a farm in the hills of North Wales, whilst her husband is away at war. Their lives turn harder still as they lose their sheep to apparently a blood-thirsty predator and as the local people grow increasingly hostile and shadowy figures in the mist watch the farm.
Maxine Peake excels in her role as the hard-bitten mother.

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle (2018)
Directed by Stacie Passon.
Written by Shirley Jackson. Adapted by Mark Kruger.
Cinematography by Piers McGrail.

Adapted from the excellently odd novel by Shirley Jackson, the film adaptation does change some elements but does maintain both the quirkiness of the book and the sense of isolation and ill-treatment that may befall people who are deemed to be outcasts or weird by communities. The Blackwood family are eccentric and insular but the town also fears them due to the matriarch and patriarch of the family having being killed by poisoning, with a finger of blame pointing to the eldest daughter Constance. Her, her younger sister and their confused Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover being cast perfectly in that role) have little contact with the outside world, but one day cousin Charles comes to visit and everything begins to change.

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The Other Lamb (2019)
Directed by Małgorzata Szumowska.
Written by C.S. MCMullen.
Cinematography by Michał Englert.

We are introduced to a female commune existing in what seems to be serenity, but then discover that all of the women and girls are the wives and daughters of a cult leader called Shepherd. Among their number a girl Selah comes of age, which the cult regard to be the curse of Eve and a symbol of impurity. Shepherd however begins taking a greater interest in Selah but she is troubled by strange visions. Being forced off the land by the local police, the group seek their ‘new Eden’ across the wilderness. The use of colour in this film is aesthetically and symbolically stunning, yet it serves also to unsettle us as we feel the undercurrent slowly rising beneath what initially seems to be a peaceful, bucolic idyll.

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Possum (2018)
Written and Directed by Matthew Holness.
Cinematography by Kit Fraser

Possum is a little different from the other films on this list as Possum is a little different from most things. It has a dank damp dark aesthetic with its scrubby nature, edge-land settings and rundown town house interiors. Following some manner of disgrace, a puppeteer named Phillip is forced to return to his childhood home and the company of his unpleasant uncle (played creepily well by Alun Armstrong). When a child goes missing, Phillip finds himself a suspect but his mind is also troubled by a grotesque puppet that he cannot get rid of, but that is not all that haunts him. Adding to the grey cloud of possum is a delightfully dark hauntological score by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

POSSUM Review: Behold, The Most Beautifully Bleak Horror ...
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The Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)
Written & Directed by Robert Eggers.
Cinematography by Jarin Blaschke.

Quite possibly the most familiar title on this list to folk horror revivalists, but even if seen before, always worth a re-watch; though there are those who are not beguiled by its wild charms, I must say it worked its magic on me. A family in New England struggle to survive far away from their Yorkshire home and banished by their brethren community for the father’s religious pride. Their misfortune begins when their youngest born, the baby Samuel is spirited away right from under the elder daughter Thomasin’s nose. On top of tragedy more misfortune falls – their crops are blighted, the nanny goat yields bloodied milk and the eldest son Caleb disappears only to return in a wretched, bewitched condition. Their suspicions turn to witchcraft but could the maleficence spring from a source closer to home?

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Selected by Andy Paciorek