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Saturday, January 30, 2021

[Sundance Review] Ben Wheatley’s ‘In the Earth’ Is a Psychedelic Trip Into Folk Horror

Writer/Director Ben Wheatley is one of the more unpredictable filmmakers currently working. His output tends to lean toward commercially friendly fare, like Rebecca or even High Rise, or it veers far into unconventional mind-fuck cinema. There’s rarely a middle ground. His latest, conceived on the very first day of lockdown, falls in the latter category, harkening back to the hallucinogenic madness of A Field in England. Set against the modern Covid-19 backdrop, In the Earth eschews a standard pandemic story in favor of a psychedelic trip into folk horror territory.

While a deadly virus ravages the world, Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) heads deep into the woods to locate Dr. Olivia (Hayley Squires). At the lodge, he briefly learns of an old folktale that tells of a wooded spirit, passes health exams with lies, and meets his park scout guide Alma (Ellora Torchia). Issues almost immediately beset the pair’s lengthy trek; they encounter abandoned tents, and Martin confesses to being out of shape for the journey. Then, Martin and Alma are attacked in the middle of the night and left shoeless. It leads them to Zach (Inside No. 9’s Reece Shearsmith), a hippie type living off-grid. Thanks to his gentle demeanor, Alma and Martin quickly accept Zach’s help, only to realize his intentions aren’t benign. Getting in and out of the forest won’t be so easy anymore, as reality ceases to hold meaning.

Wheatley doesn’t waste much time at all before plummeting Martin and Alma into insanity. In the intro to Martin and Alma, the filmmaker also sets up a folk horror deity potentially lurking in the woods. That’s before they begin their hike and pass by strange tuber-like plants that emit vapors. Will this be a matter of eco-horror or folk horror? As Wheatley plummets his characters and the viewer into hallucinatory madness, the answer is a bit of both. His protagonists find themselves at the mercy of forest dwellers, who may or may not be under the sway of something else entirely. As usual, the filmmaker wants you to decide for yourself through a wild and illusory voyage that gives major hints toward a mythical embodiment of nature.

In the Earth doesn’t skimp on the horror, either. Namely, it doesn’t hold back on violence. Expect a few characters to be subjected to cringe-worthy body horror. Flesh gets ripped open, skin flaps dangle in the wooded breeze, and even small amputations contribute to some grisly moments of cringe-worthy terror. Expect Wheatley to inject humor into the most shocking moments of visceral horror, too.

The idea to frame a story deep within the woods means that nature offers rich production value. Nick Gillespie’s gorgeous cinematography, and the unexpected, vibrant gel reds and greens, and trippy imagery, makes for a far richer experience than anticipated. It should be noted that the film does lean in heavily to strobe light effects. It’s a stunning descent into madness. One that doesn’t bother with straightforward explanations and does run on longer than it probably should. In the Earth is more of a journey than a narrative, and it can be a relatively long one for its premise. 

There are obvious nods to our current events, at least in the beginning. Characters wear masks while passing signs of social distancing measures, and all of it serves as a reflection of the present. Refreshingly, though, Wheatley’s pandemic-made feature doesn’t bother trying to recreate our current events through a horror lens. Instead, the filmmaker finds inspiration from nature, crafting a wild, hallucinogenic descent into abject terror, giving hints at a folk horror mythology and references to witchcraft. For fans of his earlier genre work, In the Earth marks a welcome return to form. It might feel a bit too familiar to A Field in England and raises more questions than it answers, but it’s a riveting trip nonetheless.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/reviews/3650290/sundance-review-ben-wheatleys-in-the-earth-psychedelic-trip-folk-horror/

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