Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and God Hates Geeks.
Magic Mushroom Madness
Writer and director Ben Wheatley wrote his American-British horror film In the Earth in 15 days in August of 2020. The film was shot in secret on a minuscule budget with a modest crew. The main cast was announced in November of 2020 and the film debuted at Sundance on January 29, 2021.
The effects of COVID-19 and the pandemic are interwoven into the storyline of In the Earth, but with terrifyingly hallucinogenic results. A scientist named Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) ventures into the woods to an abandoned lodge in hopes of reuniting with another scientist named Olivia Wendle (Haley Squires), whom he has a complicated past with. Dr. Wendle’s camp can only be reached by traveling by foot for two days through the heart of the forest.
Martin’s guide is a park ranger named Alma (Ellora Torchia). Martin and Alma are using this encounter with Dr. Wendle as a supply run of sorts, but their journey is met with lost equipment, injuries, strange and intimidating individuals, and naturally deadly phenomena.
As a director, Ben Wheatley has never been one to shy away from the bizarre or that which can’t be fully explained. He tends to have this fascination with sequences in his films that assault your senses in ways that are visually and audibly memorable, but are typically beyond normal comprehension. After a full year of dealing with COVID, we still don’t fully know what we’re dealing with.
That unknown element is what factors into In the Earth working as well as it does. Martin and Alma travel towards the cause of the virus rather than venturing away from it. What transpires is a series of unsettling polychromatic horrors that can’t be fully explained or are left to the viewer’s interpretation.
What’s intriguing about In the Earth is that it deals with several captivating concepts, but whether it properly incorporates them into a coherent storyline is entirely left up to you. The film opens with someone smashing what looks like some type of rock or crystal with a hammer and planting the fragments in the soil of the earth. Just enough of this fragment is left out of the soil to be a safety hazard in case someone was forced to walk around the forest barefoot. And bird cries begin to sound like human screams.
Martin is also a character who has just overcome the effects of ringworm. He’s advised by a medical professional at the lodge he arrives at in the beginning of the film to not over exert himself. A quick Google search determines that ringworm is often contracted by skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. You can get it by touching an animal with ringworm. It is caused by a fungus and can be spread by touching dirty clothes or towels.
In the Earth touches on wearing masks, sanitation, the quarantine, and being outside for the first time in months. What we did behind closed doors or what we were possibly forced to do without the ability to leave our homes freely is an aspect that is injected into the Martin character.
Blanketed by Rot
What lies in the heart of the forest is left as this mysterious element. In the Earth introduces Parneg Fegg or the spirit of the woods and the folklore that surrounds the location. There are times when the film focuses on seeing the sun through the trees; branches and roots blocking the perspective of the beauty taking place just beyond the plant-like fingers of the trees. It also seems to signify that the forest is shrouding its own horrors from humans.
After Martin and Alma are jumped and their equipment and shoes are stolen, they meet up with a strange man named Zach (Reece Shearsmith). Zach appears to offer shelter, food, some shoes for the weary travelers, and a place to rest all in an effort of being a good person, but he has ulterior motives. Zach’s intentions in the film are muddled. He likes to drug people, dress them up in white tarps, and take pictures of them. He also likes sewing things under people’s skin; all in an effort for them to have markings “to be seen by him.” Zach claims to leave offerings for a male creature that lives in the forest, but it’s never really clarified who it is. It could be Parneg Fegg, but it’s also easy to write him off as a madman. When he’s chasing Martin and Alma through the forest with nothing but a road flare leads to some of the most memorable visuals in the film.
Psilocybin mushroom spores blanket the forest in a haze of total disorientation. In other words, the ground is farting so much magic mushroom dust that it leads to a sensory and emotional overdose. The experience is life-threatening if too much of the spores are breathed in or someone tries to walk into this spore-infested nebula without wearing proper protection.
In the Earth is the type of horror film that could be totally spoiled for you from the get-go on paper and it still wouldn’t prepare you for what actually takes place when you finally experience it for yourself. Ben Wheatley channels the psychotropic elements of A Field in England here than any other of his previous films. While the lack of a proper explanation of what is occurring can be considered frustrating or even if the events of In the Earth are actually coherent to the audience, the film capitalizes on the uncertainty of COVID combined with the dangers that may be lurking out in the world when restrictions are finally fully lifted.
In the Earth is like COVID on an acid trip with only Ben Wheatley as your guide, which means that all you can do is clench your seat and wait for the effects to wear off. Whether you like it or not, sh*t is about to get weird.
© 2021 Chris Sawin