Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The shaggy man who lives in the forest makes an elderflower drink that he serves to his guests, some kind of soporific blend of herbs and weeds; he says he really had to tinker with it, to get the combination right. Ben Wheatley does the same thing with his movies, plucking ingredients from here and there, aiming for an acidic concoction that puts the audience into an altered state. A Field in England made psychedelic mead out of Samuel Beckett, Monty Python, and Witchfinder General; Sightseers is like Kind Hearts and Coronets sculpted with a Texas chainsaw. In his latest, In the Earth, Wheatley mixes pandemic jitters with folk-horror basics, a little Giallo color, and magic mushrooms. Lots of magic mushrooms.
Shot with a small cast and crew during the Covid-19 lockdown, In the Earth sets its action during a similar kind of quarantine. This might be part of the reason for the weird decision by scientist Martin (Joel Fry) and park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia), to walk through the countryside to reach the compound of a researcher studying the way the forest appears to be connected by a single, organic system. Of course there’s time in the prologue to hear about local legends of a forest witch of some kind. Probably some kind of myth.
After some miserable and disturbing experiences trekking through the woods, Martin and Alma meet the other two main cast members: the researcher, Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires, from Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake) and the weird man with his own raggedy compound in the woods, Zach (Reece Shearsmith, from A Field in England). Both are full of mumbo-jumbo, and the film’s biggest stretch is the idea that Martin and Alma would spend more than 30 seconds in the company of either nutcase (let alone take a sip of the elderflower dew Zach makes). Still, this is the kind of movie you go along with because you enjoy the genre conventions—or you don’t. It has a lot of those, so there are pleasures along the way: fearsomely photographed standing stones that clearly portend ill, the striking saturated colored light created within Zach’s collection of stitched-together tents, the eerie sounds emanating from Dr. Wendle’s crackpot sonic experiments.
Whatever Wheatley’s shortcomings—and, given the flat beer of High-Rise and Free Fire, he has a few—this director has abilities. He can freak you out with a shot of a landscape so that you find yourself searching for the intruder that may or may not be there, and he’s got a good ear for off-kilter dialogue that troubles the mind (explaining his talent for stitching up flesh wounds, Zach shrugs and says, “I’m always getting caught on things”).
As superficially enjoyable as this is for a genre fan like myself, I think Wheatley goes seriously awry with his final stanza, when the mushrooms kick in and the movie hurtles into sound-and-light-show territory, with migraine-inducing strobe effects and micro-cutting. It’s presented like some kind of extension of experimental cinema, but there’s something fundamentally literal-minded about this approach, unless we’re in 1970, which we’re not. The other issue is the basic unpleasantness of that style, even though I realize this will be a subjective reaction—what I’ve just described might sound like a recommendation to some, and that’s fine with me. And just to end on a more upbeat note, I would like to record that this movie uses ringworm as a plot device, a creepy point in its favor.
April 23, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.