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Science Collides With Folk Horror in Ben Wheatley’s ‘In the Earth’

Wheatley is back to his genre roots with this trippy interpretation of folk horror.
Sundance 2021: In The Earth
Sundance Institute
By  · Published on January 30th, 2021

Ben Wheatley has had quite the rollercoaster of a career, oscillating between unique horror films and action-packed crime thrillers. He began with Sightseers and The Kill List, two very different genre films that showcase his versatility with different versions of the horror genre (Sightseers is a horror-comedy and The Kill List is a slow-moving folk horror). Then, there was High Rise and Free Fire. Most recently, there was the stumble of Netflix’s Rebecca. Despite a tumultuous career of ups, downs, and genres, Wheatley has now headed back to his creepy roots with In the Earth.

A pandemic has ravaged the world, causing mass paranoia and extensive decontamination protocols, which feels all too familiar. In the midst of this ongoing global disaster, scientist Dr. Martin Lowry (Joel Fry) embarks on an expedition to a research site, ATU327A, in a remote forest to find missing scientist Dr. Olivia Wendell (Hayley Squires). Led by park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia), they trudge through gorgeous yet menacing woods, whose trees seem to slowly close in on the duo as they progress. 

An attack leaves them without any food, equipment, or shoes. When they find help from a hermit named Zach (Reece Shearsmith), they are quickly thrown into a world of an old nature god, Parnag Fegg, and ancient rituals used to try and make contact with this figure. While this sounds like the typical folk horror where two unsuspecting people become haunted by a mysterious specter, In the Earth instead melds pseudoscience with Pagan tradition.

The science comes in with Olivia, who has been extensively studying the forest in an attempt to commune with the same deity, but through strobe lights and loud pulsating sounds that supposedly match nature’s frequencies. Olivia and Zach are at odds, trying to see who can make contact first, all while Alma and Martin are thrown into the middle of a hellish maelstrom of old magic colliding with new technology.

This cast of four perform a beautiful and strange dance that teeters, and falls, into madness. The stand-out performance is Torchia as Alma, a force of nature who in the face of hallucinations, head trauma, two delusional people, and one man physically falling apart, never stops fighting. She is the hero who stands in stark contrast to Martin, the scientist who cannot catch a break. Fry looks as if he is truly suffering as Martin is subjected to repulsive injuries centered around some gnarly foot trauma. He is meek, shrinking in the potential presence of Parnag Fegg, rather than trying to face it. 

In contrast to the outsiders are Shearsmith and Squires, playing the obsessed proto-cultists who absolutely lean into madness in two drastically different ways. Shearsmith as Zach takes his need to commune with the god very matter-of-factly, explaining his steps as if it’s a medical procedure. He is so laser-focused on his goal that it manifests as an eerie calm that’s more terrifying than any fanatic. Squires as Olivia, on the other hand, wears a constant look of subtle madness as her wide eyes seem to look beyond what’s in front of her. Instead of ritual, she is focused on solitary experiments, becoming a science DJ of sorts as she plays with a soundboard to speak with the trees.

This is not the flowery and bright folk horror of Midsommar or The Wicker Man. This is a dark, utilitarian folk horror constructed through recycled tarps and old netting. Sticks are used to create sigils, but robes are made from tarps, eye coverings are just pieces of paper, and headdresses are crafted from blue netting. It is the rituals of the old gods meeting a modern world as natural resources blend with recycled manmade materials, which again illustrates the film’s building tension between folk horror and science. Zach captures this melding of old and new through haunting black and white images that illustrate his god-worshipping tableaus.

The cherry on top is impeccable sound design and an enchanting score by Clint Mansell, who has previously worked on such films as Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and Moon. Mansell’s minimal synth tones are able to add to the chaos as if it is a strange beating heart that quickens the deeper that Alma and Martin journey into the forest. The score is balanced with discomforting silence that is only punctuated by the sound of creaking branches and raindrops hitting the ground. Then, that silence is sliced through by Olivia’s high-pitched sound machines that invade the natural soundscape with a piercing frequency that brings characters to their knees. 

Wheatley shows audiences that no matter the project, horror will always be his foundation for his more experimental and mind-blowing work. Something ancient is being prodded by science and ritual, creating a cacophony of worship that starts as a rumble and becomes an ear-splitting scream and deluge of dizzying imagery. In the Earth is a disorienting kaleidoscope of folk horror intertwining with science to illustrate the sheer incomprehensibility of the truths offered by connecting to a god-like figure.

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Mary Beth McAndrews thinks found footage is good and will fight you if you say otherwise. When she's not writing, she's searching for Mothman with her two cats. Follow her on Twitter @mbmcandrews. (She/Her)