IN THE EARTH (Sundance2021) – Review by Leslie Combemale

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In the Earth is a cinematic cautionary tale that suggests getting back to nature can be more dangerous than a pandemic, and encountering a seemingly friendly, hermetic forest-dweller can be more dangerous still.

In between filming a reimagining of the Hitchcock classic Rebecca and his upcoming high profile productions, filmmaker Ben Wheatley was inspired by the unsatisfying experience of watching pre-Covid, crowd-filled films to write and direct the micro-budgeted horror film. Shot over 15 days in August of 2020, In the Earth was the first production shot since the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown in England had begun.

In the midst of a worldwide epidemic, scientist Martin (Joel Fry) has plans to abandon his months-long self quarantine and go deep into primeval forest land to seek out a researcher, guided by park scout Alma (Ella Torchia). It will take days. While camping close to their target, research hub ATU327A, at the forest’s center, they are attacked in the dead of night, and left bruised and shoeless. Oh…and we’ve already been shown someone splitting rocks into shards and hiding them in the underbrush. What could go wrong? Martin steps into one of these shards, leaving a bleeding, angry gash on the sole of his foot. Good thing, then, that greasy-haired survivalist Zach (Reece Shearsmith) happens upon them in short order, inviting them to his camp, where he has shoes just Martin’s size, and offers them a drink that may or may not be a neurotoxin.

If only Martin and Alma could see the red flags in Zach’s conveniently close proximity, and friendly yet creepy demeanor. Zach explains he’s studying and worshipping an ancient presence in the forest. How do Martin and Alma figure into his rituals? Beyond one crazy, Jack Torrence-inspired nature groupie, the forest itself might be releasing hallucinogenic toxins aimed at keeping Martin and Alma from getting back to civilization. A microbe in the cities, a lunatic in the forest, and perhaps nature itself are all trying their hand at killing them. Will they survive?

This Nigel Kneal and Lovecraft influenced bit of folk horror is a valiant effort at expressing the paranoia of our time. One highlight is the synth score by Clint Mansel that is meant to mirror the sounds of the sentient, malevolent primordial forest. Sadly, it runs at least a half hour too long, and it has a second half where the story gets muddled and loses steam before veering decidedly and somewhat inexplicably into Kenneth Anger territory, with nightmarish edits, strobe effects, and monochrome closeups of plant life. If Wheatley had wrapped the story up before that, keeping focus on the always compelling Reece Shearsmith, who fans of the fantastic show and Brit cult favorite Inside No. 9 know can play any role, he might have had something memorable. As it is, In the Earth is passible entertainment for those who can countenance some disembowelment and much mangling of feet.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.