Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth Is the First Great Horror Movie of 2021

Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth Is the First Great Horror Movie of 2021
In the Earth's Zac (Reece Shearsmith) lurks in the mist. (Image: Sundance Film Festival)

Made during a pandemic, with a fictional pandemic slithering around a story that taps into both the spiritual powers of nature and the mental effects of isolation, In the Earth uniquely captures the mood we’ve been clawing our way through for nearly a year now. It’s freaky, but it feels alarmingly relatable too.

Ben Wheatley’s (High-Rise) slick Netflix production Rebecca might have been a misfire, but the writer-director is back on more familiar turf with In the Earth, which has tendrils of his earlier films (especially Kill List, Sightseers, and A Field in England) curling around its DNA. That said, this is very much its own thing, and it’s the kind of movie you’re better off watching without knowing the twists its plot is going to take.

In the Earth begins as Martin (Joel Fry) arrives at a rural lodge that’s the park-services HQ for the surrounding land; one of his scientific colleagues, who’s been doing field research for an extended period, has stopped checking in from her post deep in the forest, and he’s there to pay her a visit. At the lodge, there are all-too-familiar protocols on display — face masks, hand sanitizer stations, awkward jokes about how it’s nice to see an unfamiliar face after so long, and even a disinfectant spray-down and medical check for Martin. We don’t get a lot of details, but there’s…something plague-like and covid-y out there that’s shifted everyone’s definition of normal around, and “a couple of people died in the village.”

As Martin prepares for the multi-day trek to reach the camp where Dr. Wendell (Hayley Squires) has been staying, Wheatley telegraphs the malevolence ahead in a way that escapes Martin’s notice, but not ours. There’s the horror go-to that cell phones don’t work in the wilderness, but also some casual remarks from others at the lodge (“People get a bit funny in the woods”) and, notably, a print that nobody can specifically remember hanging that illustrates a local folktale, sort of a forest spirit-boogeyman amalgamation called “Parnag Fegg.”

None of this concerns Martin — he’s more unsettled by being around other people after months in pandemic isolation — and it definitely doesn’t concern the matter-of-fact Alma (Ellora Torchia), who’s been tasked with guiding Martin to Dr. Wendell’s camp. In the woods, which are beautiful without feeling entirely welcoming, the omens begin to further pile up: an abandoned tent with children’s toys and, very casually, a picture book with a witch on it; a food wrapper that’s out of place; and signs from the ecosystem that feel like warnings, including birds whose screams sound awfully human.

The payoff that In the Earth eventually yields is both tremendous and startling, as you might expect from a movie set almost entirely in a forest that also comes with a strobe warning for light-sensitive viewers at the outset. A stranger (Reece Shearsmith) who’s been dwelling in the woods as a way to avoid the pandemic (among other reasons) approaches Martin and Alma to offer assistance and ends up complicating things. Eventually, the two outsiders begin to realise that the mycorrhizal network that Dr. Wendell’s been studying — the brain-like connection between the trees and other plants in the forest — may be operating in a way that they weren’t expecting. Similarly, most of the characters are not what they appear to be at first, an element that adds suspense and dread that’s helped along by strong performances — especially Fry as the increasingly freaked-out Martin.

Movies like Annihilation and Hereditary might come to mind while watching In the Earth, which manages to blend folk horror and eco-horror (and, in certain moments, body horror and avant-garde cinema) in a way that resonates with our own world. Covid-19 has at times felt like part of some grander revenge plan that nature’s been waiting to spring on humanity for some time, and In the Earth’s exploration of just how aware nature really is couldn’t feel more timely, or more terrifying.