In The Earth: The Answer Lies In The Soil

Film

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?

12 comments on “In The Earth: The Answer Lies In The Soil”

  1. mike says:

    Kenneth Williams. ‘Beyond our Ken’ or ‘Round the Horne’ I think

  2. Jo W says:

    A contributor to Gardeners’ question time on radio in the 50s used this phrase as a stock answer to almost any horticultural poser. For the life of me,I can’t remember his name but Bill Oddie used to do a fair imitation.
    More of the headline references please,Chris,to get my (very) little grey cells working. 😉

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    Not really in the broadly inclusive category of “nature gone wild” or “eco-horror,” more “eco-psychothriller,” I suppose. Most of offerings in the former category tend to be of the mutant creature, B movie variety, but occasionally you’ll get “The Birds,” of course and a few others like: ” Arachnophobia” (1990); “Deep Blue Sea” (1999); “Mimic” (1997) and “Alligator” (1980), to name just four. However, the 1988 “Slugs” — killer slugs on the rampage in a rural community.— has to be near the top on the “are you kidding me” list.

  4. Brooke says:

    Is he trying to translate The Woodwide Web and/or Entangled Life?
    Actually the science is scarier than any film could be.

  5. Stu-I-Am says:

    The effects of climate change on tree-associated microbes and their estimated 3 trillion hosts are a true eco-horror story in the making.

  6. bill051 says:

    Arthur Fallowfield in Beyond our Ken based on farmer Ralph Wightman a regular on Any Questions.

  7. Adam says:

    Hmm…I thought it was pretty derivative, and the scenes with the psychedelic lights and parping 90s rave music didn’t work for me. I loved a Field in England, which was genuinely unsettling. I think Wheatley’s next project is The Meg 2 with Jason Stathem, which could be amazing….

  8. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I can hear Kenneth Williams saying it.

  9. Paul C says:

    I thought Kill list was excellent but Free Fire was surely awful ?

    An old folk horror film worth seeking out is ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ which is a lot better than the catchpenny title would suggest. Very eerie and disturbing…..

  10. Joel says:

    “the happening” comes to mind as a “when nature attacks” type of movie…and i enjoyed it for the most part…although i will say i generally enjoy m. night sh-

  11. Ian Luck says:

    I just read the first four issues of a magazine called ‘Weird Walk’. Excellent stuff, covering all your British folklore needs. A good fun read. Still not sure about Morris Dancing, though…

  12. Helen+Martin says:

    As a result of the extreme rise in the price of construction lumber there has been a rash of tree thefts in conserved land here. A professor discussing the matter this morning referred to those tree based microbes and the apparently dire results of a loss of their habitats. Who knew it was a “thing”.

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