A horrible hallucinatory journey, but ultimately a disappointment
Ben Wheatley’s budget hallucinatory horror mishmash In The Earth poses a promising terror, following a scientist and a ranger as they venture deep into a remote forest to check out scientific equipment as the world fights a deadly virus. An ambiguous evil force awaits you in the woods, as does horror in human form.
The film begins as a grim, dark flashback, carried by psychedelic visual appeal and a captivating ambient score, to transform into a violent and crass thriller. Macabre fears of the dark arts variety are strewn; the workings of the universe are called into question, science clashes with spirituality, but most of these ideas are bypassed to make way for the piercing of the flesh and the sparkle of trippy artistry. In the ground is a horrible ethereal journey, but not as much to think about as it promises.
We open up the view to vast wooded land through a cave hole, followed by close-ups of a hammer crashing into rocks. Martin (Joel Fry) walks along rural roads, dressed as a backpack, before reaching Gantalow Lodge. He is greeted at an outside “disinfection point” by a woman in hazmat suits and a man wearing a surgical mask. The man shares that several in the village have died.
Martin then meets his guide, park warden Alma (Ellora Torchia), a seemingly bright and wise girl who shares a local folk tale with Martin. We learn that Martin has been in isolation for 4 months. The two venture out into the forest together, where they will check out the equipment. Martin reconnects with the many images and sounds of “the outside”. Alma essentially trains Martin, who is lost, tearful, and a bit useless.
First night of camping, there is a violent croak in the distance. An air of grim despair permeates just a day in their trek. They spend a short time lost and arguing. The camera moves smoothly but unsteadily, looking at the couple like an intruder, shedding a sense of misery that awaits them.
They find the tents of a family who seems to have disappeared. Martin discovers a strange rash on his leg. Later that evening he was woken up from his sleep by a man. In the morning, he wakes up to find all their stolen clothes and supplies. Alma is alive although she was also beaten. As if all this couldn’t get more embarrassing, Martin cuts his foot.
The two stumble upon Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a seemingly sympathetic vagabond who remains illegally in the woods. He shows Martin and Alma his tent, where he offers to help him with Martin’s foot. It quickly gets weirder when Zach shows cuts on his arm. He rants endlessly about an almighty force in the woods. Someone “down to earth”.
Soon he takes steps to tag the two heroes, drug them, and stage them for his weird folk art images that are seemingly ritualistic for this dark force in the woods. There is a brief period of grotesque torture in a tent with an acting hammy black comedy of Zach, which thankfully is short, giving way to a thrilling thrill as Alma forges an escape. Tense scenes ensue as Zach targets Elma with a crossbow, accompanied by low shots of him sweeping the ground with an ax.
A machine in the woods starts flashing like a vibrating strobe light. The senses become hallucinatory. An electronic score soaked in acid sounds as seizure-inducing lights flash. Martin and Alma end up meeting an unlikely friend, and the movement to safety begins.
I wish that In the ground was as powerful, scary and memorable as I had expected at the start of the movie. Wheatley shows us a sinister nowhere with a palpable sense of the supernatural. Martin’s arrival at the Bungalow in the Sticks places a weaker, shy person in an inherently scary environment, made more intimidating by the doomsday bug that is ravaging the world. Martin has just freed himself from isolation in an infernal forest radiating dark energy alongside Alma, whom he does not know. The score is set to haunting psychedelic perfection every step of the way. Eighties electronic beats and strange bells ring. The camera moves viciously over Martin and Alma. An undefined evil persists, as folk tales and ancient spiritual practices are evoked.
Wheatley puts us in a particularly menacing woodland plot, puts the vulnerable characters in some sort of cryptic danger, and does so with an artistic touch and witty atmosphere that deserves to be commended. Sadly, most of the horror that materializes comes in the form of violent psychotic human antics that turn into a cliché, zone of modern horror torture.
In the ground is taking, I will say. When Zack enters the equation, the movie reaches stranger levels, and the flurries of chases and fights are undoubtedly thrilling. The artistic and drugged sequences that litter the last 20 minutes of the film are a strange and awe-inspiring sight. However, the movie comes across as much more than an ax maniac, nail-through-the-eye escapades, but it’s mostly what transgresses. Artistic editing cannot take advantage of a fright. Delicate shots cannot disturb a viewer. It can all be artistically sound and an impressive creative effort, but At the end runs out of terror because he does not use the atmosphere provided and the concepts he alludes to.
We have seen “Crazy Guy Tortures Innocents” horror movies thousands of times. This film is more than that, in terms of sparkle and sparkle, but at its core In the ground is just that – Alma and Martin fight to survive in the woods as they escape a madman. There are biting scenes. As mentioned, everything looks impressive and visually inspired. There are times when it feels like new tropes are going to unfold or other horrors are going to be uncovered, but Wheatley remains the safe and gratuitously violent path. It’s a disappointment considering the heavy dose of delusional and weird atmosphere that reigns.
If everything hadn’t opened up like a movie John Carpenter directed and recorded in the ’80s, the expectations might not have been so high. Ben Wheatley can make a film through the eye of an artist. The whole project moves at least like a shroom trip, giving off a feeling of unforgettable terror to come. This terror never quite shows itself, but it is interesting to watch and to listen to. I can’t call In the ground a great horror movie. It’s a well-made film that shows the signs of a talented director. Visually it’s weird and special and obviously the work of a film student who has seen some horrors and tried some drugs. It’s just not a memorable horror piece that uses his ideas and delivers in the original fear department. If you want to experience this hallucinatory cooler, it is now available to stream on Hulu.
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