Review: ‘In the Earth,’ starring Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Reece Shearsmith and Hayley Squires

April 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia in “In the Earth” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“In the Earth”

Directed by Ben Wheatley

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed part of England, the sci-fi horror film “In the Earth” features a racially diverse cast (white people , black people and one person of Indian heritage) who mostly portray scientists during an unnamed pandemic.

Culture Clash: Two scientists encounter terror while they are walking in the woods. 

Culture Audience: “In the Earth” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching horror movies that are pretentiously abstract to cover up for a flimsy and repetitive plot.

Joel Fry and Hayley Squires in “In the Earth” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

It’s easy to see how “In the Earth” might be compared to the 1999 horror film “The Blair Witch Project,” because both movies are mainly about people possibly being trapped in the woods while an evil spirit might be on the loose. However, “In the Earth” is a much more incoherent film, with a lazy ending and too many scenes that drag monotonously with no scares. The movie has an over-reliance on strobe lights. It’s not terrifying. It’s annoying. Maybe the filmmakers thought the strobe lights would trick people into thinking that “In the Earth” was a good horror movie.

Written and directed by Ben Wheatley, “In the Earth” takes place in an unnamed part of England during an unnamed pandemic. There’s a very small number of people in the movie’s cast, so at least viewers won’t be confused by too many characters being in the film. What viewers will be confused by is why this pretentious and boring movie wastes a potentially good story concept on idiotic chase scenes and repetitive scenes that go nowhere.

“In the Earth” begins with Martin Lowery (played by Joel Fry) arriving at a place in a wooded area called Gantalow Lodge. He meets with a man named James (played by John Hollingworth), and they talk about an unseen doctor who’s handling lockdown procedures. It soon becomes apparent that the lodge is some kind of meeting place for scientists, although they don’t seem to be doing any real work. One of the first things that Martin says is that “Bristol took a bad hit after the third wave.”

Martin meets another scientist at the lodge named Alma (played by Ellora Torchia), who gives the impression that she’s all about work. Soon after they meet, Alma and Martin are in a room together when he sees some children’s illustrations of Parnag Fegg, a witch-resembling entity that’s part of local folklore. Parnag Fegg is described as “the spirit of the woods.”

Alma mentions that a few kids went missing in the 1970s. And because this is a horror movie, viewers are supposed to automatically think that Parnag Fegg could have had something to do with these disappearances. Or maybe it was the Blair Witch, because “In the Earth” rips off a lot of the same ideas as “The Blair Witch Project,” except for the “found footage” format.

After Martin gets a medical test to make sure that he’s not infected with the unnamed virus that’s plaguing the world, he finds out that he and Alma have to get some equipment from a scientist named Dr. Wendle, who used to be Martin’s boss. Martin isn’t too thrilled about it because he parted ways with Dr. Wendle on bad terms that he won’t talk about when Alma asks Martin why he no longer works with Dr. Wendle. Alma tells Martin that the only way they can get to Dr. Wendle’s place is to walk through the woods, and the trip will take two days. Of course it will take that long, because there has to be an illogical excuse for why this moronic movie is stretched into a tedious slog.

After all, the filmmakers don’t want Alma and Martin to drive to their destination because using a vehicle means that they would get there faster and a vehicle would give them a better chance to escape when they inevitably get stuck in the woods. And whatever this “equipment” is, it must not be that large, because Alma has insisted that they have to walk to Dr. Wendle’s place, which means they’re not using a vehicle to bring the equipment back. Don’t expect “In the Earth” to answer basic questions that would make this movie more coherent.

And so, Alma and Martin, who are supposed to be intelligent scientists, start walking for a two-day trek in the woods with no camping equipment and no first-aid supplies. They also show no signs of bringing any phones or emergency communication equipment with them. And you know what that means in a badly written horror movie like this one: Someone’s going to get injured and they can’t call for help.

Whenever “In the Earth” can’t come up with anything clever or logical in the story, Alma and Martin pass out for unknown reasons and wake up to something that’s supposed to be horrifying. It isn’t long before this gimmick happens. Gunshots are heard, the strobe lights begin pulsing, and Alma screams. And the next thing you know, Martin wakes up and finds Alma unconscious. He’s able to revive her, but they discover that their shoes are missing. And only their shoes.

Alma and Martin act as if walking in the woods with no shoes is just a minor pesky problem that won’t interrupt their schedule to get to Dr. Wendle’s place. And sure enough, Martin gets injured when he steps on something sharp that gives him a big, bloody gash on his left foot. Because Martin and Alma were too dimwitted to bring emergency medical supplies, they can’t properly treat Martin’s foot injury.

Another gimmick that the movie repeats on a very irritating loop is using any injuries that Martin gets (yes, there are more that happen later in the story) as excuses to have gross-out close-ups of these injuries. These close-ups are intended to make viewers squirm, but they aren’t really scary. They’re just bloody and gratuitous. When Martin’s foot gets infected, it’s easy to predict what will happen.

During their barefoot walk in the woods, Alma and Martin encounter a disheveled and dirty man, who gives the impression that he’s homeless, because when he first meets them, he’s relieved that Martin and Alma are not park rangers who will report him. This stranger introduces himself as Zach (played by Reece Sheersmith), and he notices that Alma and Martin aren’t wearing shoes and that Martin has an injured foot.

And so, Zach invites them to his makeshift camp site, where he says he has spare shoes they can wear. He also has medical supplies to treat Martin’s wound. But predictably, Zach isn’t such a friendly stranger after all. And the movie goes downhill from there in some nonsensical scenes involving torture, chases in the woods and bizarre photo shoots. Martin accumulates enough serious injuries that would leave a person in medical shock and incapacitated in real life, but there he is running around as if he’s only got a limp.

Dr. Olivia Wendle (played by Hayley Squires) is eventually seen in the movie. The mystery of Parnag Fegg comes in and out of the story like a story angle in search of a cohesive plot. But viewers shouldn’t expect major questions to be answered by the end of the film. “In the Earth” doesn’t even have suspenseful chase scenes, because every time a villain corners a victim or victims, nothing really happens except some talking and people passing out when the strobe lights start yet again.

Viewers won’t learn much about the characters in the film and certainly won’t care much about them either. All of the actors in the cast are quite dull in their roles, although Torchia makes an effort to bring some emotional depth to her Alma character. It’s not saying much, because all of the characters in the film are hollow, with no backstories or memorable personalities.

The production design, cinematography and editing for “In the Earth” look like a poorly thought-out student film. It’s as if the filmmakers decided to throw in some strobe lights and psychedelic fever dream imagery all over the movie to try to pass it off as artistic horror cinema. There is absolutely nothing scary about this movie.

And worst of all, “In the Earth” has such an obnoxiously inflated tone of self-importance that it tries to fool viewers into thinking that they aren’t smart enough if they’re confused by anything in the movie. The ending is actually quite anti-climactic, and any explanation of what’s going on is badly filmed. “In the Earth” isn’t too smart for most people to understand. The reality is that it’s just a pointless movie that cares more about bombarding people with strobe lights than telling a good story.

Neon released “In the Earth” in select U.S. cinemas on April 16, 2021.