Dreamy ‘In the Earth’ kicks off the era of COVID reaction films

Images courtesy Neon.

7/10 In the Earth is meant to be a better class of COVID-19 era horror, and it’s all right. It certainly has the pandemic on its mind, at least.

In the throes of a global pandemic, park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) escorts scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) on a supply run to assist an old colleague who is searching for a homeopathic cure for the virus. The research site is a two-day hike into the forest, which is purported by ancient Celts to be haunted by the spirit of the woods, Parnag Fegg.

The film is packed into three stilted acts – one of Alma and Lowery marching through the woods, one of them being kidnapped and tortured by a weirdo who lives there and one after they finally reach Olivia Wendle’s (Hayley Squires) research site.

Most of In the Earth feels like a gentle stroll through the woods that’s trying very hard to be a horror movie, mostly with atmospheric elements and constantly showing Lowery’s foot, which is cut open and infected over the course of the film. The main criticism of this movie is how forced it feels overall, and this problem eventually clears up as we get deeper into it and the atmospheric elements take over.

In the Earth was sold as The Witch meets Midsommar, but writer/director/editor Ben Wheatley definitely saw Mandy and Annihilation as well. Wendle thinks she has found a way to communicate with the forest itself through light and sound. The lights are the heavy mists, underlighting, flashing strobes and evil reds and greens from Mandy, and the sounds are the off-putting notes from Annihilation’s astonishing, dialogue-free climax.

In the Earth is Wheatley’s way of processing both these movies and the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic in the film is never specified, but heavily implied to be the ongoing one – he pumped this out over two weeks in August 2020 and said it was his reaction not just to the crisis but to the horror movies that thrived during it. With theaters shuttered, horror movies with budgets small enough that it was smarter to release on schedule direct-to-video rather than wait for theaters to re-open were the only new movies coming out, but Wheatley found them to be dissatisfyingly out of touch with the shocked world they released into.

Characters frequently seem like they’re speaking openly about the current, specific crisis, referring to “lockdown” and various waves. At the outset, Alma specifies the park has been closed for almost a year, and Lowrey says he’s been in isolation for the past four months. The pandemic is the topic of conversation until things really get cooking, with the first act ending on the choice line, “Things will go back to normal quicker than you think. People will forget what happened.”

A prophetic tapestry of the Parnag Fegg straight out of Midsommar. In the Earth isn’t exactly going for originality points here.

In the Earth is exceptional given that it was made essentially on a lark, as practice between bigger productions and as an expression of shock and grief from 2020. It feels like, and is, a bad trip or a bad dream, melding the four movies that clearly inspired it with that unique brand of lockdown paranoia and the now-realized knowledge that the Earth could simply open up and swallow us all at any moment.

That dreaminess, that trippiness, is where In the Earth feels its weakest. What the quartet of dreamy, trippy films it’s bred from really have in common is their clarity – Mandy is a searing statement about masculine entitlement set in a religious context, Midsommar is about the horror of how relationships both romantic and communal can define and erase us, and so on. In the Earth, on the other hand, is just dreamy and trippy.

This isn’t the pandemic movie I would make. Early in the crisis, I dreamed that the world had simply disappeared out my window overnight, and my shoebox in Denton had become a purgatory. The tickets for really capturing the experience of the pandemic will be movies that capture the social and political powergrab by people who define themselves by their denial of reality and movies that capture the uncertainty the pandemic triggered, particularly using masks as symbols for dissociation and identity in crisis. Am I the same person I was before? Can I be? Do I want to be? Annihilation on its own, which is about the existential dread of changing as you age, is a much better and more pointed address of these specific fears of COVID-19.

More than Wheatley’s assessment of what the ideal post-COVID movie would look like, I disagree with his assessment that the movies shot with no knowledge of the pandemic and released over the past year and change were out of touch. The COVID-19 crisis drove a wedge into every crack in our society – that’s why I make a point of calling it a crisis. It wasn’t just a pandemic, we could have handled that, it was a pandemic that hit when disinformation was the strongest it had been in history, when the global supply chain was a tangled mess and when millions of people couldn’t pay for health care and didn’t have enough money saved up to stop going to work even for a couple of weeks. It touched everything, and every movie that came out since the music stopped last March has a direct relationship to some element of what’s happened.

If it’s a heavy-duty bore into fresh pandemic wounds that we’re looking for, Amy Adams’ agoraphobic thriller The Woman in the Window, which was set for a March 17, 2020 release before COVID-19 ripped up the calendar, will drop on Netflix May 14.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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