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Review: Ben Wheatley’s ‘In the Earth’ summons the elemental nature of folk horror

Closeup of a woman with a concerned expression. A man stands in the background.
Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia in the movie “In the Earth.”
(Neon)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

There was a plague in England — the same pandemic that we happen to be living through — as writer-director Ben Wheatley started the script for “In the Earth” early in 2020. Because of that, this is a lockdown-era film that actually captures our world of surgical masks and nasal swabs and social distancing.

The extreme caution and danger dictated by the plague add an extra layer of threat to “In the Earth,” a film that draws from a deep well of horror references, including “Frankenstein” and “The Wicker Man.” Wheatley has dabbled in folk horror before, notably in “Kill List” and “A Field in England,” but the subgenre, which grapples with the clash of the ancient and the modern, is especially suited to a story like “In the Earth,” troubled as it is by mysterious rhythms of the earth, and their effect on the human body and mind. Just when it seems like nature is out to get us, Ben Wheatley reminds us that it is. Unless, of course, we’re out to get ourselves.

Joel Fry stars as Martin, a nice, nerdy, socially awkward scientist who arrives at a deserted lodge that’s been converted to a forest management way station. He sets out on a long hike into the woods, guided by Alma (Ellora Torchia), a sharp and intuitive ranger. He intends to deliver some equipment to a former colleague, Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who has been running experiments in the forest, but the journey is too arduous, and he’s too vague about their relationship, for this to be a mere errand and Alma knows it.

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Just before they depart, Martin spots an ominous piece of artwork at the lodge, depicting a dark figure overseeing a ritual. Alma informs him that this is Parnag Fegg, a witch of local folklore who has become a cautionary tale to warn children away from the forest. If only the tale deterred adults, too.

Plunging ever deeper into the green, the pair are met with violence at the hands of a disturbed hermit, Zach (Reece Shearsmith). He purports to talk to nature itself, making offerings of his art with the unwilling participation of the few passersby. The arrival of Dr. Wendle seems a relief, until they realize that she, too, talks to the forest, through her own scientific, yet inherently pagan, system. The woods have become her own monstrous creation, an eerie hybrid of nature and technology that keens and croaks and seemingly traps whoever comes near.

Wheatley’s film works on a purely elemental level; like nature itself, the film is a sensory event, the narrative often subsumed by the aural and visual experience. Clint Mansell’s brilliant score vibrates and reverberates through time, synths and bells blending with the atmospheric, often punishing, sound design. Every cinematic element is designed to unnerve the viewer. Some choices, like Wheatley’s unique approach to film editing — making rapid little cuts when you least expect them — are more successful than others, such as the abstrusely hallucinatory montages.

Wheatley crafts a plague film that isn’t necessarily about a plague, but that captures the anxiety and fear of invisible forces beyond our control impelling us, unknowingly, into danger. Fry is the perfect modern-day version of Sgt. Howie from “The Wicker Man,” a well-meaning volunteer who traipses into a peril he could never understand. But Wheatley doesn’t offer any explanations, pat or otherwise, instead letting us sit with the uneasiness that we might never fully comprehend the natural world and its energies, malevolent or benevolent.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘In the Earth’

Rated: R, for strong violent content, grisly images, and language

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes

Playing: Starts April 16 in general release where theaters are open


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