Before the world premiere of In the Earth at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, writer/director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, High Rise) briefly addressed the virtual audience to share some background. While the film was indeed conceived and produced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, he was quick to call out that In the Earth is not necessarily about the pandemic. Instead, the concepts of self-isolation and a sterile, germ-free existence simply add color to a narrative that, frankly, could have stood on its own without them. But the inclusion of these elements, regardless of how post-apocalyptic they may seem on camera, lend a strange sense of normalcy to what is an already exceptional film.
The setup is simple enough: a researcher joins a secure and quarantined facility to run routine tests in a nearby forest. But almost as soon as he arrives at the site, it becomes apparent that the neighboring forest may house something greater than anyone at the facility is prepared to acknowledge. But if you’re thinking this is yet another heady, atmospheric, and ultimately uneventful take on the genre, think again. Wheatley masterfully layers a combination of subgenres that is sure to satisfy horror fans of all walks–regardless of what particular flavor of terror they prefer most.
Playing out almost like a mashup of Wolf Creek and Midsommar, In the Earth is surprisingly restrained in its presentation. Violence and gore, while absolutely present, is grounded in realism rather than exploitation, and this approach is only amplified by the film’s stellar score. While the accompanying music and audible cues succeed in painting a strange and hallucinogenic soundscape, action sequences are eerily quiet. No pulsating drums or driving synthesizers–only the sound of conflict, and it’s intense.
But all of the atmosphere and brainteasing in the world won’t make up for lackluster performances, and luckily, In the Earth’s small but capable cast is remarkable. In fact, the core trio of Haley Squires, Joel Fry, and Reece Shearsmith is so strong that you might not even notice that the entire film is, more or less, comprised of 4 people. This is due in large part not only to their talent, but to the pace that Wheatley and team imposes on the final product. Regardless of what the threat is or how often it may change, In the Earth is never uninteresting. At its worst, it’s well-crafted cat and mouse survival horror. At it’s best, it’s a thought-provoking and mesmerizing take on our ecosystem and nature itself.
The market has undeniably been flooded with films looking to make a quick buck off of COVID, but this isn’t one of them. In the Earth succeeds through simplicity while delivering gruesome and intelligent folk horror for the post-pandemic age. It asks large questions and provides complex answers, and Horror fans would be fools not to see it.
In the Earth screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. NEON is expected to release the film later this year. We’ll keep you updated when a date has been set.