IN THE EARTH: Pandemic Fear Rolled Into Trippy Eco-Horror

In The Earth is writer and director Ben Wheatley‘s answer to the current pandemic. In The Earth uses contagion as the vessel and nature as the monster and makes use of the limitations of pandemic-era filmmaking to push the envelope through innovative, unconventional aesthetics and choices. The rough-around-the-edges eco-horror film stars Joel FryEllora TorchiaHayley SquiresReece ShearsmithJohn Hollingworth, and Mark Monero.

In In The Earth, a disastrous virus has spread around the globe. A team of scientists has set up their research facility in the eerie isolation of a vast forest, desperately searching for the cure. Local legends speak of a mysterious power in the woods and a strange being — A monster? An ancient god? A man who fell victim to a strange power he sought? — that stalks the forest. On a routine supply run, a scientist and the park scout guiding him find themselves lost in the depths of a forest that seems to be coming alive around them. Suddenly beset by dangers, mysterious and manmade, the pair find themselves in a desperate fight for survival.

A Sign of the Times

Impressively, Ben Wheatley managed to write and direct In The Earth in the short span of fifteen days in August 2020. This would have been at the height of the COVID-19 global lockdown and the impact of those limitations loom over the film. As a result of these conditions, the cast is stiflingly intimate and the setting of these scientific research outposts incredibly sterile while the larger setting of the woods is vast and isolating. Whether through filmmaking brilliance or coincidence, Wheatley managed to squeeze horror out of every possible creative choice and the result is impactful.

IN THE EARTH: Pandemic Fear Rolled Into Trippy Eco-Horror
In The Earth (2021) – source: Neon

It’s no surprise that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has inspired a wave of films hoping to tap into this massive world event. Not surprising, but still largely disappointing. With many of these entries, the film begins to feel dated before its runtime has even spent because audiences are exhausted. We’ve been living it and many viewers are craving escapism. It is to In The Earth‘s credit that it takes an approach to a pandemic horror that taps into this strange, anxiety-inducing time without exploiting it or using it as a crutch. In The Earth would land the same way years ago or years from now.

The Eternal Struggle of Man Versus Nature

In The Earth is appropriately earthy. It dares to recognize that magic is only the mysteries that science has yet to solve and that modern medicine is the magic we use to answer ancient questions. The film blends science fiction and horror through visceral, bodied terror in a way that’s really fascinating.

One of the more compelling elements in the film is its assaulting use of color, visual effects, and sound. The entire film is cacophonous and disarming, as a result. At times, the film is painful to listen to and sickening to watch. Though the disorienting effects of the film only go so far as its modest crew and quick production turnaround time, the overall package of In The Earth is trippy and feels experimental. Folk-horror and eco-horror walk together in a kaleidoscopic take on classical themes of man versus nature. In the case of In The Earth, that takes the form of “man tries desperately not to be mercilessly consumed by nature.”

Style Over Substance

Credit where credit is due — In The Earth is an incredibly immersive film. The use of sound and trippy visuals, paired with the void of isolation throws off your cinematic equilibrium in a particularly innovative manner. In terms of premise and construction, it’s damn impressive. However, In The Earth suffers from a bad case of “style over substance.” The execution comes nowhere close to matching the lofty concept and the narrative suffers where the unseated vibes thrive.

IN THE EARTH: Pandemic Fear Rolled Into Trippy Eco-Horror
source: Neon

One of the great cornerstones of the horror genre is our ability to relate to, care about, or — at the bare minimum — give a damn about the characters. In the case of In The Earth, these characters are so wooden that it’s difficult to drum up sympathy. Furthermore, the fo of mystery that cloaks the entire film is so thick that it creates confusion over intrigue. It’s a difficult film to care about, which makes the sensory assault feel unearned and tedious.

Conclusion: In The Earth

In The Earth will become a notable bookmark in our history of pandemic filmmaking. As a scrappy horror, put together in difficult circumstances, its existence is impressive. However, judged on its merits as a film and a story, In The Earth comes off as pretentious and lacking in focus. The humanity and heart of In The Earth suffer for all of its earthy blusterings. Simply, there has never been a more appropriate application of the adage “they couldn’t see the forest for the trees.”

What do you think about pandemic-inspired horror? Let us know in the comments!

In The Earth opens in theaters on April 16, 2021.

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