It’s nature’s way
Spooky ‘In the Earth’ offers mystery, dread in the forest during pandemic.
If covid-19 has been as devastating for the rest of us and has been a bane for film exhibition, it seems to have at least done British writer-director Ben Wheatley (“A Field in England”) and his collaborators a favor. With a small cast and a miserly budget, “In the Earth” demonstrates that you don’t need much material support to make a solid thriller in the woods.
Nobody mentions the world’s most famous virus during the movie’s opening frames, but Wheatley does nothing to hide how it has permanently changed the world outside a theater, either. A scientist named Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) has just joined a team that is investigating why a rarely visited piece of English parkland is unusually fertile. He suspects it could hold the key for neutralizing the effects of a brutal contagion.
If Martin is nervous about his new task, he has reason to be. He’s had a long correspondence with fellow researcher Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), but she hasn’t returned his messages since entering the park. He also endures a battery of medical tests that seem intrusive for simply walking across a large park to examine the equipment.
Oh, and he’s in no condition to walk for miles in an area where cellphones and GPS are useless. A park ranger named Alma (Ellora Torchia) has the unenviable task of guiding this tenderfoot through the site.
If simply strolling through the area can be taxing, it probably doesn’t help that there’s a squatter named Zach (Reece Shearsmith) lurking about. You don’t have to be as educated as Martin to know that Zach is bad news, but Wheatley and Shearsmith elicit plenty of chills because Zach finds new and innovative ways of being dangerous. You know he’ll try to hurt or possibly kill you; you just don’t know how. Think of him as a sort of Satanic Lorax who likes trees far more than people.
Zach is creepy enough on his own, but there are legends that the site holds a sort of supernatural force that could be part of the once bountiful harvests and that is fond of human sacrifices. Digital camera technology has improved exponentially since “The Blair Witch Project,” so Wheatley and cinematographer Nick Gillespie are able to create images that are both eerie and strangely beautiful.
You can see how some people might go mad like Kurtz in “The Heart of Darkness” because there is something worth exploring and saving there.
In addition to any ancient forces that may be lurking there, the high-tech tools the scientists are using might exacerbate any ancient curses in the area. People have tried to master the power in the soil and in the woods before. Apparently, centuries of catastrophes only seem to make some folks more determined.
With lunatics, ancient forces and dangerous electronics, Wheatley comes up with plenty of fascinating ways to torment his characters. Wheatley’s quick editing makes a virtue of disorienting the viewer, and he has a good instinct for when to explain his own mythology and for when to let the viewers fill in the rest of the picture.
Wheatley recently received a critical drubbing for remaking Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” but following his own path seems to have led him in a productive direction.