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In the Earth review – Ben Wheatley’s disorienting pagan freakout is a return to form

A spiritual successor to A Field in England shot during last year's tiered restrictions, this cultish horror burrows into your brain

After making his biggest film to date with Netflix’s somewhat ill-advised reimagining of Rebecca, it makes sense that Ben Wheatley would want to get back to his gritty, lo-fi roots. Shot on the quick during the period of England’s tiered COVID restrictions last Autumn, In the Earth drags its audience kicking and screaming into the depths of a Somerset forest for a shroom-y, pagan freakout that feels like a spiritual successor to Wheatley’s masterpiece A Field in England.

Set in the midst of the third wave of an unspecified (non-COVID) and devastating pandemic, In the Earth finds scientist Martin (Joel Fry) heading into the woods to make contact with fellow researcher Dr. Wendle (Hayley Squires), who has been radio silent for weeks during an expedition to try and increase crop efficiency. Guided by park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia, no stranger to weirdo folk horror after her stint in Midsommar), Martin initially seems to make quick progress through the woods, but it’s not long before disaster – Martin and Alma savagely beaten in the night by a mysterious assailant who breaks their GPS and steals their shoes.

Wheatley cranks up the paranoia slowly at first, with an ominous score and unmistakeable sense that Martin and Alma are being constantly watched, but the arrival of wild woodsman Zach (Reese Shearsmith) sends In the Earth into a higher gear. It’s immediately clear that Zach is a deeply sinister figure – though Shearsmith’s excellent, subtly charismatic performance keeps you guessing as to his exact motives – and his initial hospitality of course gives way to drugged tea and a cultish devotion to an unseen woodland spirit.

Even in the face of this ancient, paranormal force, In the Earth keeps things resolutely believable, Fry and Torchia playing their confusion and fear absolutely straight. There’s no sudden shift into hyper-competence in the face of these impossible odds, nor is there a breakdown into laughable idiocy. They weep and bargain and console each other in affectingly real ways, and this grounded approach extends to the wince-inducing violence. Wheatley keeps the blood and gore localised to, mostly, Martin’s feet, which undergo an absurd amount of punishment that had me squirming in my seat.

All this realism means that the trippiest moments, with their brutal soundtracks and kaleidoscopic visuals (created by surrealist YouTube star Cyriak), hit even harder, distorting your sense of time and place as Martin and Alma get ever closer to a monolithic standing stone with a hole in the centre that resembles both a loudspeaker and a gaping maw. It’s disorienting and disconcerting in the very best way, though be warned that the brain-scrambling strobe effects are incredibly intense and could prove overwhelming on a big screen.

After the uninterrupted rush of the first half hour, In the Earth slows down to deliver its exposition, making for a baggier and overlong second act that might not feel worth it given the ambiguity of its finale. In hindsight, though, this room to breathe simply increases In the Earth’s impact, letting the violence and bizarre visuals seep into your brain slowly until you find you can’t shake them even a good while after the credits roll. It’s not quite on the level of A Field in England, but In the Earth is a great return to form for Wheatley that finds him on his typically vicious home turf, drilling deep into the horrors of the English psyche and the myths it births.

In the Earth is now showing in cinemas.

Where to watch

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