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.
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.
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.
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