Thursday, 15 July 2021

In The Earth

Writer-Director: Ben Wheatley

2021, UK

Gleefully playing with and gliding through subgenres, Wheatley’s film has dashes and hints of body-horror, virus-horror, slasher, wilderness-horror, the supernatural, folk horror and science-fiction. For detractors, this will likely be evidence of an unfocused mess, but otherwise it can be seen as teasingly feinting this way and that, nodding and homaging until revealing its end goal. But indeed, I’ve noted that people are saying both that the mid-section is best and that Movie Waffler berates it for being ultimately a slasher film – but that’s missing out on all the treats. I think I absorbed it more as genre fun than a journey into the heart of darkness: more ‘Sightseers’ and ‘Freefall’ than ‘Kill List’ or ‘A Field in England’. It has that particularly English meeting with chaos and insouciance and politeness, by way of creepy ‘Children of the stone’, heady ‘Penda’s Fen’, ‘The Owl Service’… you get the old school idea (all namechecked by Wheatley).

I have also heard criticisms that ‘In The Earth’ is not a COVID film, but Wheatley has said that he just wanted to make a film that acknowledged the era as the films he was watching seemed to be dated; and besides, it’s set during that time and it’s about a guy coming out from lockdown and finding nature an abstract, malevolent force. And of course, the film’s whole gestation and production was carried out during lockdown England (too quickly and under written, detractors may say.)

There’s a phenomenon in the woods that one side is trying to communicate with folk horror and the other with oversized computers, strobes and blasting Clint’s Mansell’s excellent and searing BBC Radiophonic Workshop tributes into the trees. There’s a lot of genre homages in here, and although the enjoyment is in watching it feint this way and that upon first watch, subsequent watches will surely reveal this as a richer tapestry than first assumed. This playfulness with genre cues may lose some who may wonder why, when it has seemingly settled for forest slasher, it then lunged into Nigel Neale territory. And if it isn’t working for you, then the psychelica of the ending will probably feel like a lot of Sound and Fury to mask over its deficiencies.

It’s anchored in solid performances from the cast. Joel Fry’s Martin Lowerly comes across as perpetually dazed from his lockdown, a little immature and providing the very English insouciance in the face of increasing mayhem and slapstick horror that is a very English type of black humour. There’s lot of that dark amusement in this and Fry isn’t playing any capable heroics here. That’s all left to Elloria Torchia’s Alma, providing a grounding to surrounding more eccentric performances as well as final girl duties without it being too underlined. Reece Sheersmith’s turn as Zach perfects his outraged-and-unhinged delivery and certainly provides a solid anchor. And it’s foot trauma is a triumph of squirm-inducement. 

It’s a little trippy, a little uneven but executed with genre love, and when Wheatley says, “The reality is that the thing in the woods makes its own decision; and it decides on someone who isn’t a narrative maker – someone who is practical and is more likely to understand what it wants.”, there’s a definite ultimate agenda that clarifies the pastiche elements.

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