Tactfully crafting a horror about (and during) the Coronavirus pandemic must have been no simple task. Despite having genuine dread to draw from, it would be too easy to tastelessly exploit Covid as a tool to terrorise and risk offending or alienating those suffering because of it who are seeking cinema as a means to escape.
Instead of blandly sensationalising Covid or reducing it to a component, writer/director Ben Wheatley’s ninth feature, In The Earth, lets the virus reside in the story’s backdrop, insentiently feeding setting and context like a slumbering beast teat, without drawing from the pandemic as a primary source of despair.
Set between lockdowns, the story centres on Martin Lowery (Joel Fry), a thirty-something scientist who travels to a remote forest lodge to meet park scout Alma (Ellora Torchia), who plans to guide him to a medical facility, fifteen miles into the forest, so Martin can establish contact with a colleague and retrieve needed equipment.
Thankfully (for us), Martin and Alma’s path is beset by all manner of ghastly impediments that are a far cry from those featured in past forest set horrors, as In The Earth ingeniously transcends genre trappings and annihilates expectations.
Wheatley fiendishly tweaks tropes to bamboozle, freak out and astonish, with the help of admirably complex sound design by Martin Pavey and Jordan Milliken, and Cinematographer Nick Gillespie’s stunningly skewered view of a warped woodland which combine to make In The Earth frequently creepy, breath-takingly tense and visually astonishing.
The Kill List and Sightseers writer/director shrewdly subverts subgenre facets and dodges tentpoles to terrify via subtle suggestion, wincing suspense and lashings of unapologetic gore, sometimes from the slenderest of lacerations. Wheatley makes one small wound seem like a blood bath on the big screen, while his build-up to violence is both borderline unbearable and paradoxically hilarious.
He also makes no apology for putting viewers through the blood, sweat and paces of his characters; particularly Joel Fry’s Martin, whom Wheatley elatedly hounds like Sam Raimi going postal on Bruce Campbell with a cattle prod and gore hose.
Aside from the pandemic, Wheatley ingeniously taps into fictitious local history and distorted mythology to inform his tale with a compelling centralised fright source. The scares are also augmented by amiable characters and terrific performances from Fry, Torchia, Reece Shearsmith as a local forest kook on the cusp of going wacko, and Hayley Squires as stubborn scientist, Olivia.
Wheatley weaves dread and deploys shocks with the skill of a genre master, smoothly slipping back into horror like an axe wielding maniac down a lubricated flume, re-establishing it as his own. With Clint Mansell’s exquisitely eerie score bleeding into diegetic sound, Wheatley teases, alleviates then seduces viewers with lobe twitching, trip triggering hypno-visuals that lock onto consciousness before entangling us into a twisted unreality, then staving our sorry skulls in for good measure with icy frights, spiky terror and concentrated violence.
In The Earth is an outstandingly original, mind blitzing masterpiece and a stunning psychedelic nightmare which takes its characters into courageous new terrain in terms of both setting/locale, genre and film-making in general. It’s best experienced with as little prior plot knowledge as possible, but even with a few morsels, Wheatley’s latest remains both brain baking, dread inducing, retina sizzling, genre rattling mayhem and is the most relevant horror of the year so far.
In The Earth is released in cinemas on 18th June