Sundance 2021: In the Earth, by David Bax
Starting with its vintage-style title card (the kind where the copyright year appears below the name of the movie), it’s clear that there will be a throwback element to Ben Wheatley’s latest freak-out/horror/comedy In the Earth. It’s got psychedelic visual flourishes to spare (complete with near-subliminal images) as well as plenty of the dark, paganist beauty of so much British horror of the 1960s and 70s. But it’s also, for reasons that will become clear, a movie all the way out on the knife’s edge of our current moment.
In what seems to be the waning days of a global pandemic, Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) has emerged from a long quarantine and set off in search of a former colleague (Hayley Squires) who disappeared into the forest on a research mission and hasn’t been heard from in months. Martin is accompanied, somewhat begrudgingly, by park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia). With a little bit of The Blair Witch Project and a little bit of Annihilation in the mix, In the Earth assures us that the mismatched pair will find something more–and more horrible–than they expected.
Wheatley is well-practiced at the horror stuff, especially the gore, of which In the Earth has plenty. From hanging flaps of skin to noodly entrails to impaled eyeballs, those who like a bit of splatter with their scares will be well-served. In other ways, he relies a little too heavily on the genre’s tropes; for the millionth time, if you manage to get the drop on your captor, make sure he’s good and dead before you turn your back!
As is usually the case with his films, Wheatley supplies a healthy amount of twisted comedy as well. Be warned, the gore plays into this aspect too; the seemingly unending travails of Dr. Lowery’s poor, increasingly mutilated foot produce the grimmest of laughs. Not all of the humor works, though. The endless spiels of pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo are likely meant as a parody of these kinds of movies but that doesn’t keep them from bringin In the Earth to a halt time and again.
If the more realistic scientific talk of pathology and sanitation seem acutely familiar, that’s because In the Earth was conceived, written, shot and finished all since the onset of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Before setting off into the woods, Dr. Lowery is greeted at the rangers’ outpost by disinfecting stations and masked faces. The digital cinematography that tracks his and Alma’s subsequent journey is like the internet video of a socially distanced adventurer. And the goal of reconnecting with an estranged friend and coworker from “before” is, perhaps, a metaphor for all of our quixotic hopes of a return to normalcy. We’ve mostly lost track of what that actually is, though. Movies like In the Earth, like ancient pagan myths, endeavor to at least help us make sense of these confusing times by making engaging stories out of them.