Whether piled into the teeming bazaar of streaming services or even finding theatrical screen time, contemporary psychotronic film can suffer from a uniformity of proficiency and affect. No matter how low the budget, the dig-vid polish is high, the creep-outs are adequately shadowy, the narratives are fraught with familiar angst and rote concepts. It seems a study of Blumhouse and a decent 4K camera can get your baby on a Hulu or Amazon menu with little effort. Look at any horror movie’s list of reviews on imdb.com and it’s obvious, the geek tribes only count the scares. It’s enough to make you pine for the rough days of early George Romero, David Cronenberg and Bob Clark, when uncomfortable ideas came with distinctively threadbare and equally uncomfortable topography. Watch any recent genre entry today and you could be forgiven for not being sure if you’ve even seen it before.
A real taste for the strange and ironic – an auteurist’s unpredictability – might be what’s required, and that’s why we love Ben Wheatley, whose gnarly output can rarely be mistaken for another filmmaker’s. (His recent remake of Rebecca is what happens when big budgets Auto-Tune the risky voice of someone used to spending only one or two mil and his announced Meg sequel seems unpromising for many reasons besides.)
Wheatley’s new film, In the Earth, is Wheatley in his native low-budget element: the bristling, uneasy micro-maybe-nightmare space of Down Terrace, Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England, and the Ballard adaptation High-Rise. This palate-cleanser Wheatley wrote and shot fast amidst the summer lockdown of 2020 revisits hallucinatory Brit paganism as an obsession, and with the odd sense of terrifying amplitude emanating from what must be by now a pretty modest hunk of wilderness. (Who has mythologized their moors and forests more intensely than the English?) Wheatley loves picking at this cultural-historical scab, and his best moments scream with animistic paranoia, deeply suspicious of the green and of the deranged creature-people found there.
Of course, the pandemic offered the perfect excuse to get lost in the woods – in this case, a vaguely defined chunk of conserved forest, used by research scientists and guarded from the public. In the story it is also, in fact, mid-pandemic, when a young and reticent scientist (Joel Fry) shows up for his sinus swab after a prolonged quarantine. His aim is to further study the area’s mycorrhizal networks (fungi and tree roots supporting each other), and locate his old flame, another scientist stationed at a research hub two days’ walk into the forest.
Everybody seems normal and calm, which is unusual for Wheatley, including the park ranger escort (Ellora Torchia). He’s fussy and timid, she’s tough and impatient. Talk of local legends and post-pandemic speculation percolates, and fungi lurks beneath the surfaces (including his recurrence of ringworm). It’s a “hostile environment,” someone says early on, and sure enough they’re attacked in their tents at night, and wake up beaten and possession-less.
There’s not supposed to be anyone else out there, but there is: they bump into a shabby squatter, Zach (Reece Shearsmith), hiding from a diseased civilization, and as he sews up wounds and feeds the bedraggled pair in his elaborate tented compound, we suspect him as they do not – and then they start passing out. (Make what you will of the fact that Zach is extremely White, while his victims are not.) Once this erudite hobo dresses up and photographs their unconscious bodies, developing the photos in a darkroom tent for paganist reasons of his own, you know suddenly for sure that you’re in a Wheatley movie, where eccentric invention and psychotropic subjectivity begin to interfere with what we might expect to be an ordinary horror film.
Things get hairy, but leave conventional ideas of genre jolt-satisfactions behind. In the Earth wobbles and launches in one direction then another through its loamy, paranoid territory, and it’s exactly that mutable personality that gives it zip. Chaos is allowed. The visuals are consistently resonant. Zach’s inner spaces are sheathed in red plastic, suggesting he, and we, are inside a giant’s guts, while the woods, intimately shot, loom with pregnant menace. With its crazed characters’ mutant take on Green Man mythology, and the eventual danger of a mass mushroom spore fog – Wheatley believes in shroominess, to a earthbound-2001-lightshow degree – the film takes on a wilder and far more coherent take on nature-gone-naturally-berserk than the popular growth-dread novels of Jeff VanderMeer and the lamely adapted film Annihilation.
Wheatley never quite takes things too seriously, though, transforming the film into a literal kaleidoscope frenzy and indulging Shearsmith’s yen for farce, which can lean too heavily into sarcastic Robert Downey Jr. shtick. The rest of the cast, especially Torchia and Hayley Squires as the batshit-crazy scientist they end up finding in her strobe-surrounded research station, are convincingly strung out, even if the film’s real protagonist is the secret cross-sections of the forest we can’t see. Mycorrhizal-ly speaking, just like life.
In the Earth is in select Los Angeles theaters now.