Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth is, I am happy to report, at least a notable improvement on his remake of Rebecca. That disaster, released relatively quietly in October last year, marked a low point in the changeable, unusual career of a director at first fated for success as a cult hero. Bright and flat, too evidently made for Netflix in its TV-movie slickness, it had neither style nor substance, doing little other than allowing critics to draw unflattering parallels with the film by Alfred Hitchcock.
Most curiously, the screenwriters of Wheatley’s version had elected to apply an awkward lacquer of girl power to the famous final lines of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, making the unnamed narrator revel in “the woman I am now” before suggesting that the love of her secretive, murdering husband had endowed her life with meaning. One imagines we are due a Jane Eyre, also helmed by Netflix, in which Rochester’s mad wife escapes the attic in search of empowerment and a career.
Between this and the announcement that Wheatley had signed to make a sequel to The Meg (widely derided as a rip-off of Jaws), many feared that the once-interesting director had – forgive me – jumped the shark.
In the Earth, which circles back to some of Wheatley’s earlier fixations, is perhaps best categorised as eco-horror, a pandemic film in both its themes and its creation. Martin, a well-meaning scientist who specialises in the study of mycorrhiza, travels to a remote ecological centre in the aftermath of an unspecified, disastrous plague. After being tested and examined for infection, he sets out alongside Alma, an unflappable and slightly jaded park guide, for a secondary site. When the tale of Parnag Fegg – a woodland spirit who may also be a necromancer – is invoked, Martin tries to reassure himself that local legends ought to be irrelevant to a man of science.
Because “mycorrhiza” refers to the relationship between a fungus and a plant, and because this is a movie by Ben Wheatley, we are certain from the off that mushroom spores will be involved; the soundtrack, written in the key of “when the edible hits” by the icon Clint Mansell, swoons and drones, indicating the approach of something wicked. By the first bloody collision of cold flint and human flesh somewhere around the one-third mark, the film has made it clear that there are more things in the Earth than have been dreamt of in its scientists’ laboratories.
In the Earth stars three extremely naturalistic, nuanced actors – namely Joel Fry, Hayley Squires, and the striking Ellora Torchia – and Reece Shearsmith, whose signature blend of arrogance and ham can be terrific in the right part, and extraordinarily grating in the wrong one. Here, he plays the kind of clichéd yokel-woodsman with a sick streak who has populated horror films about the wilderness for more or less as long as horror films about the wilderness have been produced: an offbeat friend to weary travellers who soon reveals himself to be a disturbed foe, proffering moonshine before sharpening his axe.
In 2013’s A Field in England, Wheatley teased out Shearsmith’s unctuousness to cast him as a snivelling, servile coward, in doing so ultimately birthing one of modern cinema’s most frightening images – that of Shearsmith, leashed and grinning and enslaved by pitch-black magic, being driven like a cart-horse by the devil. That earlier film, with its monochromatic palette and its faintly insane use of tableau vivant, brushed up against pretention in a way that made it daring and unusual and strange, a trippy exercise in 17th-century psychedelia that did not quite resemble anything else. It remains, in my opinion, Wheatley’s most interesting work, making it logical that he would return to some of the same themes post-Rebecca. After making a film every bit as bland and uniform as Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, what better palette cleanser could there be than psilocybin?
As it turns out, In the Earth occasionally feels like a particularly expensive, dialogue-heavy music video. As far as dense and quasi-scientific exposition is concerned, it also sometimes calls to mind a cut-screen animation in a videogame designed for people who maintain vivaria and enjoy acid. It might also be interpreted as a two-hour public information broadcast about the inherent danger of going out barefoot into nature: rarely outside Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre has a film so startlingly combined gratuitous, lingering violence and the soles of unclothed feet, although 2018’s A Quiet Place comes very close.
What it rarely feels is entirely new, never quite successfully conjuring up the air of evil that, for example, permeates Lars von Trier’s 2009 film Antichrist – another alle-gorical story about nature and its power that, via a combination of Tarkovskian landscape shots and gendered violence, kept its audience yolked as tightly to the devil as Reece Shearsmith in that frightening A Field in England scene.
Still, at least we were not required to dream of Manderley again.
“In the Earth” is in cinemas from 18 June
In the Earth (15)
dir: Ben Wheatley
[See also: Twenty years of feminist classic Legally Blonde]
This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web