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Following an uncharacteristically tepid adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca undertaken for Netflix and released last year, Ben Wheatley here returns to the diseased rural British underbelly he probed in his reputation-making early works, Kill List (2011), Sightseers (2012) and A Field in England (2013).

Conceived and made in the throes of the Covid-19 crisis, and premiered at January’s online edition of the Sundance Film Festival, In the Earth uses a pandemic as the jumping-off point for a delirious folk horror, in which the science of mycorrhizal networks (webs of communication whereby plants can transfer nutrients and minerals between them) infects the more familiar genre territory of woodland spirits greedy for blood sacrifice.

“People get a bit funny in the woods sometimes,” says Frank (Mark Monero), one of the sombre government employees who welcome newcomer Martin (Joel Fry) to a research encampment somewhere near Bristol: “It is a hostile environment.” This phrase, used by the Home Office to describe its policy of making life unpleasant for immigrants to the United Kingdom, hints at a political undercurrent in what is to come; but Wheatley’s cocktail of horror tropes and hippy science proves more hallucinogenic than satirical in its effect.

Martin has joined the project in the hope of assisting – and, we surmise, reconnecting romantically with – an erstwhile colleague and old flame, Dr Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires). Deep in the forest, Olivia is researching how plants communicate – but, Colonel Kurtz-like, she’s not been heard from in a while. Before he heads off to find Olivia, Martin is casually told about the key figure in the local ‘hostile environment’: an ancient woodland spirit named Parnag Fegg. (The name suggests a nod at Alan Clarke’s extraordinary 1974 TV film Penda’s Fen, of which Wheatley is an acknowledged fan.)

Off Martin goes to join Olivia, a journey that requires a two-day trek on foot, and the company of business-like park guide Alma (Ellora Torchia). If Martin is carrying guilt and sorrow over the loss of his parents during the pandemic, Alma is one of those for whom it’s all about moving forward. “Things go back to normal quicker than you think,” she insists. “People will forget what happened.”

Joel Fry as Martin and Ellora Torchia as Alma in In the Earth (2021)

Normality, however, quickly slides further away. In the night, Martin and Alma are assailed by unseen forces, in a startling sequence of discordant sounds and flashes that jars the film out of its mood of deadpan understatement and into more florid and fevered terrain. Though assistance soon arrives in the bedraggled form of forest-dweller Zach (Reece Shearsmith), it’s no great surprise that his kind of help comes with a terrible downside.

A star of A Field in England also well known for the television comedies The League of Gentlemen (1999-2017) and Inside No. 9 (2014-21), Shearsmith is such an embodiment of blackly comic English creepiness that his casting risks tipping the film into pastiche. However, his relatively low-key performance and the new plot information his character provides serve to keep outright silliness at bay. Zach is an artist, but out of perceived necessity rather than an instinct for self-expression.

While Olivia and her kind look for scientific routes to understanding the forest and its ways, Martin seeks to appease what he calls “the thing in the woods” by creating things that he thinks will bring it pleasure. “I’m talking to him in a purer way,” Zach claims. Unfortunately for Martin and Alma, that means drugging them, stitching symbols into their skin with animal guts, and photographing them in strange poses. “Photography is like magic,” he notes in passing. “But then, so is all technology when you don’t know how it works.”

This is the idea that draws together the film’s wayward strands: that art, science and superstition are not separate, but enmeshed and symbiotic; and that nature may consequently have more of a hold on our behaviour and self-expression than we think.

The artist Zach romantically characterises, and identifies with, Parnag Fegg as a wandering necromancer who became trapped in the forest. To Zach’s scientist counterpart Olivia, however, his interpretation is evidence of “a psychological problem with humans: we want to make stories out of everything.” Olivia – played by Squires with an intense stare and prim manner reminiscent of Harry Potter’s clever sidekick Hermione – has gleaned from ancient texts that the name of the supposed spirit in fact refers not to an individual at all, but to the forces of “heartfelt prayer and God’s light”.

Hayley Squires as Dr Olivia Wendle in In the Earth (2021)

Olivia has the forest wired for blaring, blinding soundscapes and lightshows, her hope being that somehow this will break communication barriers between humans and the interconnected natural world. Not that that those barriers are as solid as we think. Nature, Olivia explains to Martin, is able to manipulate us using not only our senses, but our emotions, our physiology, even our diseases. Martin’s longing to see Olivia was not the manifestation of a higher human feeling – romantic love – but a virus, whereby the forest draws to itself what it needs.

Indeed, despite the three-way crackle of sexual jealousy between Martin, Olivia and Alma, nothing here is romantic. Though Olivia claims that the aim of her work is to find out “how we can live together without destroying each other”, her methods turn out to involve a good deal of destruction. Nature is not gentle; and both artist and scientist have convinced themselves that their chosen routes to understanding it justify the infliction of tremendous suffering.

Is Parnagg Fegg real, or a name for nature? Either way, why does it require the blood of a nice man called Martin? That sort of firm explanation gets a little bit lost in a denouement that goes big on psychotronic rampage before leaving a lot of its loose ends defiantly untied. There’s a whole strand about standing stones that never quite relates to the other aspects of the story. But In the Earth may ultimately have more to say about the experience of being an artist than about monuments, magic mushrooms or mycorrhizal networks.

“So… you’re using light and sound to communicate?” Martin innocently asks Olivia – a query that neatly remind us that we, too, are being told a story, and affected by a sensory display. Could it be that Zach and Olivia are not just embodiments of creativity and ontology respectively, but aspects of Wheatley’s clashing instincts as an artist: the storyteller who wants to involve us, and the iconoclast who’d rather mess with our senses? It is in between these boundaries – artist and scientist, natural and supernatural, disrupted present and dystopian future – that this film finds its fertile ground.

Further reading

“I wanted to make something that fits the moment”: Ben Wheatley on In the Earth

By Anton Bitel

“I wanted to make something that fits the moment”: Ben Wheatley on In the Earth

“In the end you can’t help but make stuff in a postmodern way”: Ben Wheatley on re-filming Rebecca

By Christina Newland

“In the end you can’t help but make stuff in a postmodern way”: Ben Wheatley on re-filming Rebecca

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. first look: Ben Wheatley convenes that sinking family feeling

By Ella Kemp

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. first look: Ben Wheatley convenes that sinking family feeling

Sight and Sound September 2022

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