Reece Shearsmith appears in director Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth (Image: Neon/Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

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Having recently flirted with bigger-budget filmmaking with Netflix’s rather inert adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, British director Ben Wheatley returns with a haunting film of twists, turns, and some haunting imagery.

Set in a time where a deadly pandemic is harming the world, In the Earth follows Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) as he journeys deep into the Arboreal Forest to reach a remote research site, ATU327A.

Accompanied by the thoughtful park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia), the pair begin a painful journey that turns sinister when their camp is attacked.

The pair run into what could be help in the form of a mysterious forest dweller named Paul (Reece Shearsmith), who appears to be living off-the-grid in his own camp.

However, what comes next proves increasingly bizarre, unpredictable and dangerous.

In the Earth feels just like Ben Wheatley’s wheelhouse, evoking the unnerving psychological chills of his efforts Kill List and A Field in England, but sadly In the Earth goes slightly off the boil with its rather muddled final act.

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Thankfully, the performances are all bang on the money. Joel Fry really creates a strong personality despite the meekness of lead character Martin, striking up a natural rapport with the likeable Torchia as Alma.

Elsewhere, Hayley Squires works well in what is perhaps the most scattered role of the film when she is introduced late in the action, but the highlight has to be Shearsmith with his genuinely unnerving turn as Paul, who feels sinister but in an almost nonchalant manner that Wheatley brings out well.

Some of the imagery in the forest setting is stunning and accompanied by the synth score and some viciously gory sights feels genuinely disturbing, but as events veer into the more cryptic, mythical, and unpredictable we also get a more psychedelic offering from the director.

Sadly the answers at the heart of the enigmatic trappings are nowhere near as fun as the initial feelings of dread, even if the performances and cinematic skill provide enough to satisfy both fans of horror and of Wheatley.

Verdict

In the Earth may not live up to its early promise but it once again proves that Ben Wheatley’s visceral filmmaking is so well suited to the unpredictability of horror.

In the Earth premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2021 but does not currently have a UK release date.