After earning a reputation for his unique brand of violent, satirical films, writer and director Ben Wheatley went off-piste for a couple of years to make a Shakespeare-inspired family drama and a glossy, Netflix-produced romantic thriller. His directorial tangents have been met with mixed critical response but for his latest effort, he returns to his indie horror roots with a point to prove and an axe to grind.
In the Earth takes place during a pandemic as a deadly virus lays waste to the planet and its population. Carrying out research in an attempt to increase crop efficiency, scientist Martin (Joel Fry) sets off into a remote forest. He is chaperoned by park guide Alma (Ellora Torchia) and their plan is to assist Olivia (Hayley Squires), a former colleague and ex-lover who is leading the experimental study. After an early scare along the way, they meet Zach (Reece Shearsmith), and events take a dark, downwards turn.
Shot during the Covid-19 lockdown on a shoestring budget in predominantly one location with just a handful of actors, this is a terrific example of how to succeed with a stripped back, minimalist approach. Whilst the protocols and regulations are being adhered to off-screen, and in the story itself with hand sanitizer aplenty, the rulebook on filmmaking is completely ripped apart.
There are prolonged silences when you would expect sound, abrupt editing cuts, and extended epilepsy-inducing sequences with strobe lighting effects. Some elements in this film shouldn’t really work, but they come together harmoniously in Wheatley’s concoction of a relentlessly unsettling atmosphere. There are some nods to genre classic The Blair Witch Project in its rough-cut style and suspense, but it’s like a prison drama in a wide-open space, offering little respite to Martin and Alma as they’re put through the wringer to the tunes of Clint Mansell’s pounding, stirring score.
A familiar face to British audiences but often found on the side-lines of films or television comedy dramas, Joel Fry takes centre stage in this piece which is very pleasing to see. He has often portrayed victims in his previous roles, so feels well suited for the suffering that well-meaning Martin is forced to endure at the hands of Ben Wheatley’s wickedly sharp nib. Ellora Torchia is well cast alongside him for the experience, the reassuring wisdom to his plucky naïveté, each of them bringing different reactions to the shocking events that unfold.
The other half of the core quartet have worked in the director’s realm before and are both on really good form on this occasion. Squires leaves her working-class associations behind for an amusing, unusually well-to-do persona that’s alarmingly unnerving in itself, whilst cult comedy veteran Reece Shearsmith turns in a magnificent, deadpan performance. His third outing with Wheatley, he fully understands the director’s strange vision and can conduct the beats effortlessly between surreal humour and toe-curling terror.
Disturbing, fearless, and with just the right amount of weird, In the Earth is a slaughter to the senses and one of Ben Wheatley’s very best.