Say what you will about Ben Wheatley’s “Rebecca” – his perfunctory Netflix remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful 1940 classic – as his 2020 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic melodrama was, in one sense, unexpected. Coming from the cult British filmmaker, who broke out in 2011 with the unsettlingly violent, genre-shifting “Kill List,” “Rebecca” seemed like a bizarrely mainstream choice for an artist who is, if nothing else, distinctive.
In another sense, its lackluster reviews could be said to be perfectly in line with what people have come to expect from the director of “Sightseers,” “High-Rise” and “Free Fire,” none of which has managed to garner more than two stars in recent years: a frustratingly uneven blend of dark comedy and luridly stylized violence in varying proportions.
Wheatley’s latest, “In the Earth,” is, in that sense, a return to form. Billed as pandemic-themed “folk horror” and shot over 15 days during last year’s coronavirus shutdown in the woods an hour outside London, the micro-budget film is meant to take place in a remote and inaccessible backwoods research site during an unspecified virus outbreak.
And yet the bucolic setting reads more like a peaceful suburban park than the “hostile environment” of the forest primeval it’s described as in the film. What’s more, “In the Earth” has nothing interesting to say about pandemics.
When botanist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) turns up at the ranger outpost maintained at the fringes of the grove, he’s immediately introduced to the local legend of Parnag Fegg, an ancient, creepy-looking nature spirit that locals seem to believe in. With his guide, Alma (Ellora Torchia of “Midsommar”), leading the way, Martin sets out on a two-day hike to reunite with his former research colleague and apparent ex-lover, Olivia (Hayley Squire), to continue research into mycorrhizal fungi. (They’re a real thing, by the way, said to connect trees, via their root system, in a network that has been sometimes described as akin to a giant underground brain.)
And that’s the last time anything remotely resembling real science will crop up. At one point, during a conversation about virus testing, Martin mentions, offhand, that he has recently recovered from ringworm. In the moment, his comment is neither here nor there, but it figures prominently later in the story, which doesn’t take long to descend into the realm of magic mushrooms.
Almost immediately, things go awry for Alma and Martin, who, after encountering an abandoned tent along the way, are attacked during their first overnight by an unseen assailant who, inexplicably, steals their shoes. Shortly thereafter, they’re taken in by a guy named Zach (Reece Shearsmith), who lives in a camp that seems to have been cobbled together from lots of other smaller tents – hmmm – and who just happens to have enough spare hiking boots on hand to fit both Martin and Alma. (Warning! Warning!)
It isn’t long before old Mr. Fegg (Ms. Fegg?) shows up – or at least has been summoned via a moss-covered stone monolith and rituals that are so preposterous as to be laughable. And it isn’t the good kind of laughter, either; it’s the “Plan Nine From Outer Space” kind, except with enough bloody mutilation and field surgery to turn your stomach.
The film spins wildly out of control, leading to a trippy climax that looks like what taking ayahuasca must feel like without vomiting and diarrhea. You’ve got to give Wheatley credit: “In the Earth” is like nothing else you’ve seen – although some might wish it were a little less, er, original.
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