Gruesome, Trippy, ‘Properly Scary’ Pandemic Horror In The Earth Is Out Now
Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth hits UK cinemas today, June 18; a pandemic-minded, psychedelic horror that’ll leave your head spinning.
Woods have long been the plaything of evil: Deliverance, The Blair Witch Project, Willow Creek and even Wheatley’s own Kill List. Camping is just never worth it. But, nightmares be damned, people flock to the wilderness to breakaway from the mundanity of pedestrian life, for fresh air, to disconnect. This year, we can all relate to wanting a small escape.
The director’s latest film was conceived early in the first national lockdown, ‘trying to make sense’ of what was happening around him. The result is a movie unlike anything you’ve seen, ‘interrogating what’s properly scary’ while shaking your senses into a state of pandemonium only the big screen can conjure. This time though, it’s not just what lies within the woods.
Plot details are best kept as thin as possible, so you can have this: during an unnamed pandemic, Martin (Joel Fry) and Alma (Ellora Torchia) venture into an ‘unusually fertile’ area of the woods, hoping to find the path to a cure or other ways to survive. Naturally, the expedition has a few bumps along the way, with appearances from Reece Shearsmith and Hayley Squires – just watch your step, and hold your breath.
‘This had come out of trying to make sense of what was happening with the lockdown, thinking about horror, what I like about horror, what I’d like to see out of a horror film,’ Wheatley told UNILAD.
‘Then I started thinking about stories, what are stories, and how everything got slightly screwed by people making up a lot of lies and destroying our trust in facts, which seems to have been happening the past few years, and stirring that into a big pot, really. I also read a load of stuff about mushrooms, and I thought it was really crazy,’ he added.
In the Earth has unease in its soil, whether it’s the bated-breath lead-up to things going wrong, hallucinogenic assaults on the psyche or knuckle-whitening gore. The latter is of major significance to Wheatley, illustrated in Kill List‘s harrowing hammer scene or Sightseers‘ gleeful murders.
‘It’s designed to give that effect. You want the audience to feel it, to feel something, to jolt them out of the comfy experience because otherwise the thing just rolls over like syrup. You get to the film and can’t remember what you’ve seen. You’ve got to conjure these almost-physiological feelings within the person, you want to make the viewer’s heartbeat change, you want to make chemical reactions – fight or flight – to make them feel how the characters feel,’ Wheatley said.
‘Certainly with body horror and wounds and stuff, I always think how closer the things are to injuries you could have yourself, you tap into the audience’s experiences much more directly. So gun fights, unless you’re really unlucky, it’s something you’re not going to experience… but stubbing your toe, getting your arm caught in barbed wire, treading on glass, even me saying this you’re going ‘oof’ inside, aren’t you? It’s a shortcut straight into your imagination,’ he added.
It’s something of note to Shearsmith, who worked with Wheatley on A Field In England and High-Rise. ‘He manages to get violence very well in his films in a way you don’t really see it,’ the Inside No. 9 co-creator said.
In a recent interview, Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton spoke about a key principle in their work: drama shouldn’t have limits. Between Wheatley and the actor, there’s definitely a creative synergy.
‘Ben has the same sort of sensibilities; pushing the boundaries with what he can do with storytelling, the means, the mechanics, the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. In this film, he put sound and light front and centre… there’s an onslaught I can’t wait to see on the big screen, it’ll be a real endurance test for the audience – but that’s great,’ he said.
‘He’s got the same like-minded need and desire to do storytelling… he interrogates what’s scary, what’s properly scary. He manages to hit a nerve quite literally sometimes, how it makes you feel, flinch and jump. Those kind of things surprise and are funny, as well as being horrific. If you can get it right, it’s one of the most delicious things, I think,’ Shearsmith added.
With regards to that ‘onslaught,’ Wheatley’s rustic eeriness is soon overwhelmed by a sensory overload, constructed of throbbing noise (on the back of Clint Mansell’s pulsing synth score) and strobe lighting to the extreme. Serious warning for those who may be affected, this film is no joke, to the point even Wheatley was nervous during production.
‘We were nervous of it, yeah. When you see it in the film, it’s more controllable. It’s only on-screen for a certain amount of time. When you’re filming with it, it can be on for 12 minutes or something like that. We had various protocols for that, if anybody felt funny we’d stop immediately. Some of the frequencies, we learned quite quickly, would make you feel quite ill quite fast, so we turned those off,’ he said.
The end result will likely leave you loopy – but holy hell, it really has some oomph, bolstered by the theatrical experience. ‘I do advocate the cinema absolutely. I think it’s the ultimate version, the immersive-ness of it,’ Wheatley said.
‘Watching it with other people I’m kind of here or there with; I think a midnight audience watching a horror film is a beautiful thing, but I could do without people eating crisps next to me as I watch a drama. That feeling of being with an audience, seeing shocks, scares and screaming out loud, is spectacular,’ he added.
In the Earth is showing in UK cinemas now.
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