Here is a low-budget, low-profile film that scampers through the undergrowth up to a horrible folk-horror epiphany, with undeadpan comedy and a gibbering shroom meltdown, percussively hammered home with strobe lightning flashes and skull-splittingly loud snaps. At one point, we are encircled by a fog, which a frowning scientist describes as a “suspension of mushroom spores and water droplets in the air”. It was one of those rare moments in the cinema when you are glad of a mask.
This is a return to home territory for its writer-director Ben Wheatley, maybe reminiscent of his 17th-century Leveller freakout A Field in England from 2013, which was about civil war deserters captured by an alchemist and finding the world turned upside down. And there are admittedly some familiar tropes: forests where mobile phone signals are impossible, a local myth represented in ancient woodcuts. But for me In the Earth is a return to form, after Wheatley’s interesting but basically uncertain dabble last year in period romantic drama for Netflix with a new version of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca with Armie Hammer and Lily James. In the Earth brings us back to Wheatley’s classic world of occult loopy weirdness and cult Britmovie seediness, with a new topical dimension of pandemic paranoia, and what keeps you watching is its unreadable, almost undetectable thread of black comedy.
Now, I admit that’s often a bit of a heartsinking combination, the ostensible comedy and horror occasionally being alibis for each other’s absence. But it is sold by the two subtly excellent lead performances from Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia, who play it utterly straight. Fry in particular (perhaps still best known for his trendy brand adviser Karl Marx in the TV comedy W1A) never tips the audience anything resembling a wink to indicate that we shouldn’t be taking it seriously, but shows us the surreal absurdity that is below the surface of his character. This is especially true when on no fewer than three separate occasions, something absolutely horrible is done to his foot, and he remains steadfast and stoical throughout.
Fry plays Martin Lowery, a soil scientist who we first see approaching a scientific research station on the outskirts of some pretty innocuous-looking English woodland. As with everyone else, his life and work has been disrupted by a recent pandemic, but now he wishes to resume his vocation and journey into the centre of this inaccessible forest to examine the soil, which is of remarkable fertility, and so crucial for feeding the populace. Work on this project has already been started by Dr Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), with whom Martin has apparently had a relationship, and there is more drollery in the way Fry keeps telling people that the ending of this affair is a private matter that he doesn’t want to talk about. He has to be accompanied through the forest by a guide Alma (Torchia), and things seem reasonably calm until the pair of them chance upon someone who is living in the forest without official permission: Zach, a bearded and somewhat supercilious man played by Reece Shearsmith – casting that signals something disturbing is on the way.
From here on in, Martin realises that any “research” into the soil thereabouts is in fact a far more irrational activity than he had been led to expect, and that what is in progress is a communing with nature that is not going to lead to any peer-reviewed publications. We are heading for a kind of transcendent apocalypse in which the structure of narrative collapses, revealing a bizarre and enigmatic series of images. Wheatley plunges us into his rusty tank of weirdness with gusto and Fry and Torchia handle this ordeal with impeccable seriousness.
In the Earth is released on 18 June in cinemas.