Despite some mundane earlier scenes, In the Earth provides horror fans with a sensory onslaught that complements its themes of isolation and disorientation.
It’s funny what you can come across on a total whim. When In the Earth was in theaters, I saw it randomly at the last minute when simply looking for something to do one evening. I didn’t even have any experience with writer-director Ben Wheatley’s work beforehand. And while In the Earth is not one of the best films out there, it certainly has some of the most unforgettable moments of 2021 cinema on offer, with plenty to keep audiences thinking. The story is about a scientist (Joel Fry) and a park scout (Ellora Torchia) who, in the midst of a deadly global pandemic, go out into the woods for what they think is a standard equipment run. But they soon realize that the forest is now home to a rather unsavory individual named Zach (Reece Shearsmith), who may or may not be influenced and controlled by a living force within the forest itself. What our protagonists thought would be a simple excursion turns into a nightmare, perhaps one that’s building off the pandemic they’re living in.
In the Earth has a lot of what I really like in a horror film. It knows how to set up a creepy, off-putting atmosphere, especially once we get into the forest itself. The film doesn’t gloss over any of the ugliness that comes with its uncomfortably violent and gory imagery. In the Earth is even somewhat unconventional with how it’s composed. It uses a lot of shots that sometimes feel intentionally framed “improperly”, or strange cuts to black serving as mere transitions as if cutting to a non-existent commercial, sometimes within the same scene. These techniques do work generally, as they deny me what I’m used to regarding the standard flow of a film and thus get under my skin in the right way … though it’s hard to tell how much of this was indeed intentional and how much wasn’t. This movie was made entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s very possible that some of it is due to how the crew were limited on how they could shoot it. Whatever the case, like I said, the directing and editing still work overall.
Nick Gillespie’s cinematography, however, is some of the most impressively stylized and eerie I’ve seen in years. For something that doesn’t have that big a budget, In the Earth can look damn stunning at times. With the way Gillespie utilizes aggressive lighting against characters and silhouettes, foreboding colors, and especially the way he disorients and manipulates the shots in the more intense sequences, I think it’s a shame that his work went completely overlooked when talking about the best-looking films of 2021. But while on the topic of disorientation, it should be known going in that this is not an easy film on one’s senses. Not only are the imagery and presentation meant to rattle you, but the sound is particularly aggressive in how unpleasant it is. This forest is meant to be a place of panic, stress, and frightening isolation as your grip on sanity crumbles, a grand exaggeration of the effects of the real-world pandemic the story’s background is clearly inspired by. The second half in particular unleashes an all-out sensory assault on the viewer, almost invasively so. When I saw In the Earth in theaters, it even opened with a warning for those sensitive to photo epilepsy. I especially love one particular scene that takes place in the mist, not only for it being the first hellishly freakish sequence but for the rattled performance of the actor when coming out of it. Everything In the Earth does in this regard is very effective and I love it … but for some, it might be too effective.
Such extreme tactics are justified, not just for how well they’re pulled off, but for the story they serve. This is not that deep a plot when you really get down to it, but it does well in executing its ideas of something forcing people apart and driving some of them back into a more primal state. In the Earth combines that with a supernatural force that feeds off of the isolation-driven madness and plunges people into such madness in its name, causing them to reject their previous modern society in favor of what this malicious entity desires. It’s a really creepy idea that’s really well-realized when it comes to the forefront. Though the second half is definitely more enjoyable than the first half, which consists of more standard fare. This is fine for building up to the horror, but it becomes a problem when the characters we follow in that time have so little to them, and the actors don’t usually have a ton of presence in what they bring to elevate the roles. Even Zach isn’t that interesting as an initial threat after a few scenes, making the film’s earlier sequences come across as a typical thriller in the forest. It’s when you see the endgame that you can look back and appreciate these scenes more, but I still think they would be a little underwhelming upon rewatch even knowing this. They do the job and have their moments, but not much more than that.
From its apparently divisive reception, I’m certain that In the Earth is the kind of movie that’s destined to gain a cult following. And it’ll be very well-deserved, which is why I really want to spread the word and recommend that any horror fan find a way to see it. Especially if you have a big enough screen with good enough speakers to fully subject yourself to the absolute onslaught In the Earth has in store. There’s some weaker stuff to sit through, but when this film hits its stride, it really hits its stride. And for how small a production this is – plus having to be filmed during COVID pre-vaccination – I really don’t want all that effort to go unrecognized. If this sounds like something you can get behind, definitely check it out.
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