In the Earth

Tonal Inconsistencies Bury ‘In the Earth’

While making the horror classic Evil Dead 2, Sam Raimi admitted that the various calamities visited upon the main character, Ash, were less about driving the story forward and more about torturing his star, Bruce Campbell. While watching In the Earth, I can’t help but wonder if director Ben Wheatley had the same fun with his star, Joel Fry.

Over its 100-minute runtime, Fry’s scientist Martin Lowrey goes through indignity after indignity, starting with losing his shoes on a cross-forest walk and escalating to much worse. With his hangdog expression and innate likability, Fry is game for everything the movie throws at his character. But Lowrey’s Wile E. Coyote-esque travails do eventually undermine the film’s attempts at building dread.

Set during a pandemic that may or may not be COVID-19, In the Earth follows Fry’s Lowrey as he joins fellow scientist Alma (Ellora Torchia) in the search for his former mentor, Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires). Gone into the woods to find a cure for the virus tearing the planet apart, Wendle has been missing for weeks. But the duo’s rescue mission quickly takes a turn for the surreal, as they’re beset by strange visions and attacks from unknown forces, which might be the will of the forest itself.

Despite its of-the-moment subject matter, In the Earth feels like an also-ran, thanks to its stylistic similarities to Ari Aster’s folk-horror masterpiece Midsommar, Panos Cosmatos’s gonzo revenge flick Mandy, or even Alex Garland’s sci-fi mind-blower Annihilation. Wheatley tries to make viewers feel that there’s something inherently evil in the woods, and occasionally makes dips into local folklore about ancient sorcerers. But none of the movie’s old books with creepy drawings or mossy stone monuments convinces the viewer that a sylvan Satan is to blame. Sadly, neither do Wheatley’s psychedelic visuals, which convey spore-induced dream states with images of flower fields dissolving into character faces. They feel less like visions of people enthralled by mind-melting flora or fauna and more like old Windows screensavers.

SEE ALSO: How Ben Wheatley’s Down Terrace Put a Fresh Spin on British Gangster Movies

What does manage to unnerve the viewer is Reece Shearsmith as Zack, a displaced man living in the woods who comes to Joel and Alma in their time of need. Putting to use the comic chops he developed on The League of Gentlemen, Shearsmith imbues Zack with kindly menace, making existence feel like a vast cosmic joke. Even as we breathe a sigh of relief at the aid he gives our heroes, giving them shelter and new shoes to replace those that were stolen, his kindness raises disturbing questions. Just what was that liquid that he sprayed to sanitize Joel and Alma? And why does a man in the woods just have extra shoes on hand?

In the Earth axe guy

But even if these questions occur to Joel and Alma, Zack brushes them off with ridiculous logic delivered with such deadpan seriousness, one can’t help but laugh. These jokes entertain, but they also feel at odds with the movie’s theme. Why are these characters making jokes when the world is falling apart?

Maybe that’s the movie’s point, that the earth itself has tired of our existence and will use disease and psychedelics to brush us off like the bad joke we are. But even if that is the intention, then Fry and Shearsmith’s tragicomic performances still don’t fit with that calls upon Covid anxiety and fears about the ever-present unknown. Ultimately, In the Earth ends up like most of Wheatley’s films. A compelling idea and interesting experiment that never comes together into an engaging whole.

Thank you for reading! If you’d like to support our website, you can follow us on FacebookTwitter and YouTube

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *