My notes on Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth
A thematic – and perhaps actual – sequel to A Field in England, this Ben Wheatley joint (he wrote and directed) was put together during the early stages of the pandemic. The crisis features in the opening section (indicating that the film is set a little in the future, with several more waves of doom having crashed over the country), then gets left behind as we walk through the woods leads to a more primal, Nigel Kneale-type haunted/folk horror stretch of the countryside. The dominant image, as expected, is a standing stone with peculiar features.
City-dwelling scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) arrives at a SSI site in England, searching for a colleague, Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who has been performing research deep in the forest. He sets out on foot to reach her camp, accompanied by slightly high-handed ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia), who might be near the end of her patience with the boffins who have taken over what used to be a tourist centre. Local legend has it that the wood is haunted by a particular bogeyman (Parnag Fegg), and eventually all the characters fall under its influence – though it might be a portal or a phenomenon rather than an entity. We check off swirling literary (H.P. Lovecraft, Alan Garner, Robert Holdstock) as well as film/TV (Kneale, John Carpenter, Stalker) influences while Wheatley does his own thing, especially when hallucinogenic fungus (related perhaps to the ringworm infections that all the characters have had recently) spumes mists of spores into the atmosphere.
In the woods, Lowery and Wendle find a few dead people and other ominous signs that many, many things are amiss … then run into Zach (Reece Shearsmith), Wendle’s ex-husband, who disagrees with her scientific method of trying to contact Parnag Fegg with electronic tonalities (Clint Mansell’s more-than-just-music-score contribution is outstanding) and is relying on ritual, storytelling and blood sacrifice. Zach is soft-spoken, reasonable and whips up mushroom soup – then reveals that his kindness is a deliberate tactic adopted all the better to be hideously cruel. A spell at Zach’s camp leads inevitably to tied-to-a-chair-and-tortured business, though effects artist Dan Martin’s signature touch is mostly seen in a foot wound Martin sustains after – in a diabolical touch – Zach has taken away the intruders’ shoes and made them walk barefoot. |Especially cringe-inducing DIY surgery involves sewing up the wound and then (in a Misery-like sequence Shearsmith plays for cruel comedy) chopping off toes with an axe.
Zach functions like Colonel Kilgore in the film, for Alma and Martin escape him – he’s still just one middle-aged humanities bloke, not a masterfiend who knows how to tie people up properly – and enter the domain of the Kurtz-like Wendle, who might have set this whole thing up. Squires is splendid as the obsessed scientist, not going the full-on rant but with tiny tics that give away how deep into the dark she’s ventured. Martin’s genuine kindness is taken by others as a weakness, qualifying him to be sacrificed by science or sorcery to bring about some sort of transcendence that, in typical Wheatley manner, goes beyond any rational plotting. Like A Field in England, it’s liable to frustrate those who want a straighter horror tale, but it has more of the darkly humorous touch of Kill List and Sightseers. The unusual production circumstances, which might well lead to a general tone observable in many 2020/2021 films, also make for a disorienting, faintly discernible wrongness that boils over in a climactic son et lumiere assault on the senses.
Dig this thumbnail sketch: dishevelled, dazed wanderer staggers through valley and down dale. Literally stumbles across a bucolic hamlet (shades of Z for Zach.). It’s a lively village, it eventually transpires, and wanderer nursed back to health by comely type. Gradually we grok that some all encompassing disaster has befallen all, and that the village has been miraculously spared. Wanderer returns to health but is disquieted by oddness (shades of Wicker Man). Of course, the villagers are worshippers of The Unspeakable, which may have caused the Great Wotsit, and is certainly providing sanctuary to the compliant villagers. Another survivor, a colleague of the wanderer, believed dead, arrives at the village. There’s the premise of this exquisite corpse, fellows, feel free to extemporise – yeah, like, wow, man! Feel free, feel really free. They feel free in thee village – Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now like … As I say, fag-packet thumbnail … All I got for ending as a placeholder is to literalise the implied ending of Wicker Man. Wanderer and chum deduce that the Unspeakable can be destroyed and the world-as-was thereby destroyed. But Wanderer pledges allegiance to village by sacrificing chum, prancing down street clothed in flayed skin, as villagers cheer … too derivative, too guignol, too literal, too much – trying too hard – doesn’t work … The point is to play with ideas til they give milk. You know you start off trying to play Apache and by twists and turns end up with I Am The Walrus … create, imagine, it is thee only occult practice there is and it actually works …
had a thought that’s making me shit myself because it’s dark and very quiet here, like the world really has gone away … say the Unspeakable isn’t a mega-thingy announced with ominous oom-pah and lightshow … implied impish people instead, small, frail and benign looking, close encounters meets Dopey of the 7 dwarves, barely glimpsed, whispering and giggling … but they are running the show, see? They don’t look capable, but they are pulling mankind’s strings – as a lofty behavioural experiment or simple shits and giggles is unclear, but they made a man who tried to do good do wrong, man, how he tried …