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'In the Earth': An Unintentional Choose-Your-Own Adventure Horror for the Pandemic

A man holding an axe stands in profile in the woods
Reece Shearsmith as ZACH in Ben Wheatley's IN THE EARTH

Ben Wheatley's trippy environmental horror is a sensory journey into the proverbial heart of darkness. Shot on a closed set in 15 days only five months after most of the world began quarantining in their homes, In the Earth captures the feeling of anxiety and panic that we as a collective humanity are dealing with on a daily basis. It recognizes that things are terribly, terribly wrong. However, as a whole, the film plays like a choose-your-own adventure game, more than a unified story. Powerful captivating images grab viewer attention in the moment, but with almost every type of horror on the table -- from body horror to folk horror to creepy madman in the woods horror -- the overall experience fails to create a memorable experience that will last the test of time.

While the scientific world searches for a cure for a mysterious virus, Martin Lowery (Joel Fry; Yesterday) arrives at the Gantalow Lodge after a four-month quarantine, hoping to find Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), with whom he has been corresponding through letters until just recently, when she stopped responding. Alma (Ellora Torchia; Midsommar), a skilled park ranger, will accompany him on his two-day trek through the woods, since others have become lost trying to make similar journeys. What begins as a peaceful hike through nature soon devolves into the stuff of nightmares as Alma and Martin fight to survive against injury, supernatural forces, hallucinogenic fog, a creepy loner named Zach (Reece Shearsmith), and possibly most threatening of all, the spirit of nature itself.

A man and woman cower on ground with their ears covered
Joel Fry as MARTIN and Ellora Torchia as ALMA in Ben Wheatley's IN THE EARTH

The quartet of actors each do their part to create effortless performances. According to the press materials, Wheatley purposefully created complex characters who are skilled in different ways. And how very true. Joel Fry as Martin may not be a tough guy, but he shows determination in finding Dr. Wendle and resourcefulness in getting out of tough situations. Ellora Torchia as Alma has commonsense and courage enough for both of them. Hayley Squires as Olivia has the brains and also artistry in creating ways to communicate with nature. The mysterious Zach (Reece Shearsmith; High-Rise) has passion and cunning. These four united could create an unbeatable "stranded on an island" team yet their widely different goals make them into worthy adversaries.

In the Earth succeeds in building an atmospheric sense of dread. The chilling score and the trippy visuals heighten the discomfort of watching two skilled adults slowly having their independence and certainty stripped away. The story feels like a combination of Blair Witch (minus the shaky cam) and Annihilation (minus the budget). The sound and visuals together assault the viewer and create an visceral, unsettling experience. And there is both dread and gore in the telling, offering something for fans of different types of horror.
A man and woman look at something in shock
Joel Fry as ZACH and Ellora Torchia as ALMA in Ben Wheatley's IN THE EARTH

The main problem is there are almost too many types of horror offered. Upon their first meeting, Alma tells Martin about a local folktale about Parnag Fegg, the spirit of the woods, which may simply be a tool for scaring kids away. So it's to be folk horror, eh? Then the pair get attacked in the woods and their shoes go missing. It must be a crazy madman after all, then. Martin's shoeless foot soon becomes infected and the cringe-worthy body horror begins. Still to come, fog that may make you go mad, the betrayal of someone you love, the natural world angry at human neglect and mistreatment, and the auditory torture. If the game were Oregon Trail, dysentery would be only a keystroke away. Yet it's hard to know which evil force Martin and Alma should fear the most. Who is the true enemy?

Perhaps Wheatley created this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink type of horror to reflect a world that feels unsafe on every level. That doesn't make In the Earth a bad movie -- just a scattered one. And for me, there were one too many seconds of strobe lights and rapid-fire trippy images. By the end, it felt like the end of a fireworks show, where they have to blow up the remainder of the stash so everyone can go home. The first part of the movie -- the journey up until Dr. Wendle is found -- is the strongest half and had my whole attention. Of the dark pandemic films I have seen so far, In the Earth is the most compelling. While not a fully fleshed out story, it captures the unease of the current climate. It's recommended for an at-home rental, but not a purchase to rewatch.

Release info: In theaters April 16th; after that, distributed by Neon.

Final score: 3 out of 5

Movie poster for In the Earth