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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: In the Earth (2021)

Ben Wheatley’s much-anticipated return to horror has been met with a lot of intrigue and excitement. As a firm believer in Wheatley’s ability to make interesting genre films on limited budgets, I was beyond stoked to see him returning to the genre that manages to bring out the best in him: making unique horror pictures that are genuinely disturbing through imagery and atmosphere alone. Films like Kill List and A Field in England shows his unique vision within the genre, drawing and mixing styles and concepts together that don’t normally gel on paper. In the Earth promises to be yet another terrifying head trip like the above mentioned films, but unfortunately it never finds itself coming close to Wheatley’s best as it flails in the forest, far from reaching the finish line with satisfying results.

In the Earth is set during the wake of a global pandemic. We follow a scientist and a park scout as they venture deep into a forest on an equipment run. But once the night arrives, things go from bad to worse as they find themselves trying to survive the mysterious forces at play within the forest.

There is a lot of promise found within its initial premise, but what makes In the Earth that little bit more exciting is the sheer ambition of the project and how it sprung up on everyone so unexpectedly. Shot in secret and on a small budget over 15 days in August, Wheatley managed to round up a team during the height of the pandemic and just make a movie, one that has him returning to the genre that introduced us to his undeniable talent. Following the critical bomb of the newly adapted Rebecca, Wheatley needed a win, and in some ways, he achieves this victory with In the Earth. The pandemic stopped so many creatives in their tracks, but not Wheatley, showing admirable strength in finding a way to create and stay active within a rough time for the industry. However, the admirable ambitions and speediness of the project can’t seem to save In the Earth from feeling empty and incomplete, losing focus of what it wants to say and become as an exercise in horror storytelling.

Wheatley has a major strength in utilizing small budgets within tight shooting schedules, but In the Earth felt like a project that didn’t need to be rushed out the door as quickly as it did. Understandably, artists can get antsy, feeling the need to remain active in order to survive as creatives. But in this instance, In the Earth still feels like a work in progress – a first draft still trying to figure out its strengths and weaknesses. “Just make something”, “eh, it’s good enough” seems to have been the mindset here as it gets progressively lazier in getting us to give some sort of shit about the world of story and the dull as dishwater characters found within.

That’s why In the Earth can be so frustrating as there really are some good ideas rattling about. As the pandemic has essentially paused (or at least slowed down) our relentless destruction of the planet, we have found time in trying to reconnect and understand nature a little better as we get tiny glimpses of it healing. Wheatley considers and engages in the idea of understanding the natural world we live in and the mysteries of it all, but it feels as though he doesn’t quite follow through with these ideas. Characters mention how they are worried we will just return back to our normal selves once the pandemic is over, but Wheatley never really makes us fear or even really consider this. He never really makes us fear nature as much as we could and should. It all stumbles and trips over itself until we reach an underwhelming finale that doesn’t really have anything at all to say or ponder regarding the questions and ideas Wheatley initially put forward.

I am an avid fan of slow-burners, especially within the horror genre, but In the Earth finds itself struggling to make use of its 107-minute running time effectively. Wheatley opts to build a creepy atmosphere of uncertainty and mystery early on, but effectively throws it all away somewhere in the middle, where it appears he has all but lost sight of the potential In the Earth possesses. If you have every intention of helping us figure out the lores and rules in your world of story, then the set-up phase is so important in making it both clear and vague enough for us to piece the puzzle together ourselves. I am fine with not knowing all the answers in horror films, as the fear of not knowing the why’s, who’s and what’s are far more frightening than what is really happening. It also demands more from the audience, essentially putting them in the driver’s seat and challenging them as they try to solve and interpret the mysteries and symbolism laid out before us. And although Wheatley introduces some dialogue in vaguely hinting and explaining things throughout, he kept it at a minimum, keeping the creepiness and power of interpretation alive with the audience. Then, just past the halfway mark, he takes over the steering wheel and ruins any and all ideas we had about what it could all mean by explaining everything in the most uninteresting way of lengthy exposition: a scientist telling us exactly what’s happening. It’s an even bigger slap in the face when this character’s explanation of everything is so incredibly lame and so not scary. It genuinely feels as though Wheatley needed to make sense of the story for himself and left his notes in the final script by accident. From here, it just turns into rushed B-Movie schlock, with incredibly dumb and predictable decision-making from everyone involved. Although Wheatley often skirts the line of B-Movie plots quite splendidly, he appears to fall off the line with In the Earth, failing to live up to the intelligence and execution he pulled off so well with the likes of Kill List and A Field in England in particular.

There are glimpses of Ben Wheatley returning to form with specific moments of his wry sense of humour and ability in inflicting the most distressing of tension on the viewer. A particular highlight involves the amputation of toes, blending unbearable tension with humour that is uniquely Ben Wheatley. But none of it ever feels worth enduring due to a cast of unlikeable and just plain boring characters. They’re bland, hollow individuals that fail to make us care for the bigger conversations the film initially attempts to discuss.

In the Earth is most certainly an ambitious work considering the circumstances with which it was made, but it all feels so needlessly rushed and incomplete to consider it the true success it wanted and needed to be. It may not have Wheatley returning to his former glory, but it's a step in the right direction. Until he regains that touch, revisit Kill List and A Field in England to get him at his unnerving best.

Where you can watch it: Most VOD platforms (USA)

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