In the Earth (UK, 2021)
In the Earth is another film I’ve been itching to see for a while. A number of Ben Wheatley’s earlier films — Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England — used elements of folk horror to great effect. So when I heard that Wheatley was returning to the genre, I was excited. This excitement was tempered by the film’s lukewarm reception, but the premise still sounded intriguing enough to reel me in.
Well, let’s see what’s waiting for us in the woods.
In the Earth is currently available on Netflix in the UK.
In the midst of a pandemic, scientific researcher Martin Lowry heads into some restricted woodland, guided by a park ranger named Alma. These woods are rich in folklore, especially relating to a local forest spirit or deity named Parnag Fegg.
Martin is searching for his missing colleague and former lover, Olivia Wendell. She has been researching the symbiotic relationship between a local variety of fungus and the roots of the trees making up the forest, resulting in a vast mycorrhizal network. Martin likens its complexity to that of a brain.
After Martin is injured by a trap, they are aided by Zach, an eccentric but avuncular man who lives in the woods. While he is initially helpful, Zach soon drugs the travellers, incorporating them into his strange mystical rites in praise of Parnag Fegg.
This is only the beginning, however. Alma and Martin discover that Olivia has been blurring the line between ritual and scientific experiment, making contact with an intelligence far from human. She, too, is dangerously keen to involve them in her work.
What is the relationship between Olivia’s theories and the legend of Parnag Fegg? How does this connect to an ancient standing stone and folk tales of necromancy? And how will these discoveries change everyone involved?
In the Earth represents a profoundly British fusion of folk horror and science fiction. This weird little subgenre owes everything to Nigel Kneale, who we have discussed on the podcast a few times, especially in our episode about his 1972 TV play The Stone Tape. In much of Kneale’s work, from The Abominable Snowman to his final Quatermass serial, ancient traditions are explored through scientific means. Rather than demystifying or dispelling any horror, the greater understanding this analysis leads to only makes things worse. This is especially true in The Stone Tape, where discovering the reality behind an apparent haunting only reveals something far more ancient and terrifying.
We see exactly this approach with In the Earth, but Wheatley takes it one stage further by introducing a philosophical tension between wanting to understand the science behind Parnag Fegg and simply accepting him as a god. That argument about what defines a god — whether it is simply something greater than us and beyond our understanding — also lies at the core of the Cthulhu Mythos. There is a very real human impulse to worship that which awes us, and Wheatley shows us here that scientific understanding does little to dispell that impulse.
There is also a distinct Lovecraftian element to the desperate and perhaps futile attempts to communicate with a god on its own terms. Even if we were manage to succeed in any capacity, would we really want to undergo the changes that would surely bring?
In the Earth was shot in the early days of the pandemic, and it shows. The spectre of Covid hangs over everything, from the quarantine and precautions Martin goes through before embarking on his quest to the threat of infection permeating the whole story. At one point, Martin admits how he is struggling to cope with being outside after months of isolation. It all feels horribly relatable.
With its slow pace, lo-fi aesthetic, and unashamed philosophical ambitions, In the Earth is going to alienate a lot of viewers. While it deals with existential horrors, it is not a film that sets out to scare. Its effects are more insidious, with only the occasional moment of bloody violence to shake the audience up. In other words, it could have been made for me.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a toothless film, however. When it gets nasty, it is brutal. If you have any issues with injuries to feet, in particular, watching In the Earth will not be a happy experience.
At the same time, I know that a lot of people will find In the Earth dull, and that’s fine. Wheatley has made a wilfully uncommercial film here, and I’m just glad that someone in his position still gets to do so. It is mind-blowing to think that he went from this to Meg 2: The Trench as his next project.
The performances here are top-notch. Reece Shearsmith, in particular, is excellent as Zach. This is a character who disarms through politeness. Just through tone of voice, Shearsmith absolutely convinces us his actions are harmless even as the rational part of our brains are screaming in alarm. It is genuinely chilling.
If you have the patience for a more thoughtful, psychedelic approach to horror, you may well enjoy In the Earth as much as I did. This is now the top contender for my film of the month.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Dark August (USA, 1976)
- Huesera: The Bone Woman (Mexico/Peru, 2022)
- The Banishing (UK, 2020)
- Brooklyn 45 (USA, 2023)
- Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell (Japan, 1995)
- Pyewacket (Canada, 2017)
- Grave Robbers (Mexico, 1989)
- You Might Be The Killer (USA, 2018)
- No One Will Save You (USA, 2023)
- The Sect (Italy, 1991)
- Last Night in Soho (UK, 2021)
- Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil (Spain, 2017)
- 47 Metres Down (UK/USA, 2017)
- The Oskars Fantasy (Philippines, 2022)
- In the Earth (UK, 2021)
- Something in the Dirt (USA, 2022)
- Blood Flower (Malaysia, 2023)
- Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Canada, 1987)
- Older Gods (UK, 2023)
- Come to Daddy (New Zealand, 2020)
- Shrew’s Nest (Spain, 2014)
- Totally Killer (USA, 2023)
- The Premonition (USA, 1976)
- Murder Me, Monster (Argentina, 2018)
- The Gruesome Twosome (USA, 1967)
- Talk to Me (Australia, 2023)
- Gaia (South Africa, 2021)
- Demon (Poland, 2015)
- Juju Stories (Nigeria, 2022)
- El Conde (Chile, 2023)
- The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (Hong Kong/UK, 1974)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Night House
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!