In The Earth delivers a broad and subtle sense of psychedelic horror, but cannot shake incoherence and slight silliness.
This is a spoiler-free review because I couldn’t identify any ‘spoilers’. Just as the main characters trek through the woods, we are taken on a journey that’s sort of similar. Except we don’t have a map, we don’t have any sort of mission or objective, and what lies ahead won’t make much sense. But we get through it nevertheless. Writer and director Ben Wheatley makes no effort to hold your hand through In The Earth. There’s a pandemic groan. There are psychopaths, there’s gore, there’s a forest that’s… alive? Bottom line, it’s tough to get a grasp on what exactly this film is about. Horror is a genre that’s able to forgo narrative and story conventions to subvert expectations.
Many modern horror flicks (studio and independent) have made a move to immerse than to get audiences wrapped up in a flowing story. In an effort to convey intelligence in its premise, it doesn’t present anything more than confusion. I watched the film twice. The idea and story foundations became more muddled the more I watched and tried to understand. The idea of a forest that’s come to life got lost in scientific and mythic rhetoric that came off as incoherent and, at moments, silly. Jumping from premise to premise didn’t become easier to understand the more you watched it. The best you can do is forget about your confusion and hope it gets better later on (it doesn’t).
In perfect pandemic fashion, we are brought back to basic and budgetless filmmaking in In The Earth. I counted 2 distinct locations and 4 principle figures. In all honesty, that’s all you need for a deep-cutting hallucinatory horror film. Starting with the locations, Wheatley made such fantastic use of the England forests. He captures just how endless the green and trees are. It truly was a canvas for the production to do whatever they wanted.
As a result, the forest became a character in itself, despite the story not allowing it to be. The performances weren’t anything special, so it was hard to take them seriously at times. It could be a product of a muddy script or the direction being too fast for the performers to catch up. Either way, the performances weren’t notable and only served the script and cryptic premise.
In The Earth’s best achievement is, without a doubt, its ability to hijack your senses. Its sound design is flawless in capturing the endless England brush, the score is just as perfect. A film like this would’ve done great inside cinemas, but in a pandemic, lockdown world its sensory impacts fall flat. While I’m on the subject of immersive sensory aspects, let’s talk about cinematography. The camera work was truly something special for most of the movie. It moved seamlessly and beautifully… until it didn’t. I’m talking about the abrupt camera switches.
The film is not very obviously shot during the pandemic. Also, camera switches aren’t uncommon, especially with the need for budgetless reshoots. However, and this is a big fat “however.” You cannot use drastically different cameras in reshoots! You switched from a high-end filmmaking camera to an unedited iPhone! Other than the fact it looks silly every time it happens, it deters you from the idea this movie can, in fact, live despite its story woes.
Some of these reshoots don’t further any of the sensory aspects the film does so well. It doesn’t add to the deep psychedelic scares either. It’s merely used to get from one point to another. If it’s about getting from point A to B in the story then it really doesn’t help the overall film. If it was used to perfect the uneasiness of the premise through cinematography, then by all means reshoot scenes to your liking. But there is no saving this story from being hopelessly confusing.
The film had the potential to be an absolute trip. Like the way, Mandy blurs expectations and immerses you in its own taste of Hell. Or the way Under The Skin lacks a distinct direction but leads you through a hallucinatory nightmare. In The Earth works on its own level of entering its kaleidoscope of horror.
Especially in the final 5 minutes of the film, you are given a bit of closure to the sense of confusion. In the end, the film had much to work with and all the space to be something truly special. Its unique vision was in part executed but beheaded by a sloppy script. I’d expect to see this film at a midnight screening in independent theaters when the pandemic allows.
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