In The Earth: The Answer Lies In The Soil
Following on from the last column about cerebral scares, here’s something new in the folk horror genre to catch.
Ben Wheatley is incapable of making a dull film but he comes dangerously close to self-parody with ‘In The Earth’, which will either kill off the fashionable folk-horror cycle for a while or encourage a further try. Luckily, there are still many good reasons to see it.
During the pandemic, gentle research scientist Martin and clear-headed walking guide Alma set off into the English hinterlands to find a missing scientist and undertake Martin’s vague-sounding bio-mission, during which they stumble across what may be the site of a murder and are themselves attacked.
Awaking, the pair quickly fall under the spell of the old rural gods in the person of Reece Shearsmith’s Zach, a kind of off-the-grid Renfield acting for the forest’s Old One, whose arrival he anticipates. Alternately lecturing his captives and drugging them, he poses and films their unconscious selves as participants in arcane rural rituals. Shearsmith’s pivotal role demands something beyond his range, and he has trouble softening his one-note Northern persona into something more ambiguous; a pity, as he has all the best lines.
There are plenty of wincing injury-detail moments (including one which proves hilarious) but the sinister grip of the woods must largely be taken on trust, partly because it is too difficult to realise the horrors of MR James and Arthur Machen on film. You either have to produce a monstrous Jack-in-the-Green and create an entire natural theology in the process or stay with a scientific explanation – and ‘In The Earth’ ambitiously attempts both. Although folk horror needs something tangible behind it that goes beyond woodcuts and knotted sticks, it doesn’t have to be entirely visible.
The film is thematically wedded to ‘A Field In England’, which also visualises a physical link (in both cases, a coil of rope) between an unimaginably brutal natural world and our more civilised one. Wheatley renders this clash in hypertense flash-cuts that add anxiety but little else. When the mission’s female Captain Kurtz rants on about the need to communicate with the unseen forest god, he is rightly called into question. After all, what is this natural deity going to say that we haven’t already understood and ignored?
The idea of nature being an unstoppable primal force that visits madness and death on those caught in its clutches is not new, and has been more blatantly represented in the ‘nature out of balance’ cycle of the seventies, although it was arguably started by ‘The Birds’.
Martin doesn’t disrespect the forest but his scientific training leaves him floundering. There’s another touchstone film for this; ‘Annihilation’, in which scientists cope with a transmuting forest operating on alien rules. It was superb, but cost rather more than Wheatley’s micro-budget.
Clearly, filming in lockdown presented severe challenges, but they’re unnoticeable here. Standout moments include a tense forest chase and the usual flashes of self-deprecating wit – the woodland camp might have been stumbled upon by the ghastly couple from ‘Sightseers’. The film also fits neatly into the director’s canon (with the exception of ‘Rebecca’, which he directed for the cold, dead hand of Working Title) but perhaps a more fleshed-out magnum opus on this material still lies in the future.
The film’s climax feels truncated and disappoints, with the much-discussed god failing to achieve much more than affecting susceptible minds, so Wheatley’s mythology remains frustratingly incomplete.
NB. I’m sorry, these headline references are getting very obscure – anyone?