Thursday, April 22, 2021

In the Earth

Some really weird trailers before this one:

  • The Night House - Okay, this makes sense. Smart-looking small-cast horror movies go together, right?
  • Cruella - Great job, Walt Disney Company, you've gone and made a live-action spinoff of one of your G-rated animated classics where theater employees think that the trailer is a logical pairing with nasty indie body horror! What was absolutely everybody involved thinking (aside from "Emma Thompson as the boss from hell could be a lot of fun", and, okay, I'll give you that)? Seriously, who wants to see the origin story of the woman who wants to kill puppies and wear their coats? There's still time to scrap and memory-hole this one, Disney!
  • Profile - My second case of "huh, I guess I already saw that" in as many days, as I spent the whole trailer thinking this was an awful lot like a movie by director Timur Bekmambetov that I saw a couple years ago (actually three!), only to discover that it actually was the same one. I'm just confused by this, though - who, after the past year, is going to want to go to a theater and watch people sitting at their computers and doing video calls for an hour and a half? And how did it avoid getting picked up to stream for some three years?
  • Separation - Okay, this fits. Not the most clever looking horror movie - it looks like it's covering a lot of been-there-seen-that plotting with creative monster design - but I've probably seen worse.
  • Together Together - As an indie comedy/drama, it's an odd match, but I've probably done double features of stuff like it and In the Earth at IFFBoston a lot.
  • Mortal Kombat - I saw trailers for this and Dune back-to-back before Godzilla vs Kong last week, and for all that I was all about one and totally indifferent to another when I was younger, I found myself wondering why both of these things keep getting new versions. I mean, I guess the games never actually went away and have picked up story beyond just being beat-em-ups, but I don't know that they've been popular enough to have a couple movies, a TV show, and the always-imminent threat of a new movie in the past 25 years for a long time, and I don't know how you get a movie out of it, even if the trailer has big "something simple has evolved into something ridiculous" energy.
To a certain extent, there's just not that much coming out until theaters are open at full capacity, so if AMC's going to do their 20 minute package, they've got to stretch a bit. But, hoo boy, is this a weird set to go with a weird movie.

It's weird enough, really, that this is the second Ben Wheatley I'm seeing this movie at a theater first run in a row, because in my head they've always been festival-ish presentations: I saw Down Terrace at IFFBoston 2010, Kill List at an IFFBoston special presentation, Sightseers while on a trip to London, A Field in England as a late show at the Brattle, High-Rise at the Kendall, Free Fire at MonsterFest in Melbourne and and IFFBoston-related screening, before Rebecca showed up at the Kendall alongside its Netflix debut, and this dropped at the Common. Wheatley has only made a couple of detours into the real mainstream, so it's been fun discovering him with like-minded people who, after Down Terrace and Kill List, more or less knew they were down for. I wonder how these last two would have played out without a pandemic - would the Kendall have had room for so many Netflix pictures without the majors punting everything, or would Neon have given this more of a festival run had there been festivals?

In the Earth

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 April 2021 in AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run, DCP)

In the Earth is simultaneously a movie that Ben Wheatley pulled together quickly as something he could make while folks were self-isolating - it was allegedly written and directed in two weeks - and something that must have been kicking around his head for a while, which leads to a certain tension. There's big ideas and times when the film either has too much or too little to do to get to the next leg, messy in a way you might expect from a film made under weird conditions.

The first that the audience meets is Martin Lowery (Joel Fry), approaching a hunting lodge on foot, although it and the forest behind it, are being used as the home base for scientific experiments during lockdown. He's arrived to assist and/or relieve former colleague Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who has been studying the forest's interconnected root system but has, of late, been out of communication. Her base is deep in the woods, two days' hike with the help of park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia), and while those woods are supposed to be uninhabited, they have a couple of worrying encounters even before meeting eccentric squatter Zach (Reece Shearsmith).

Wheatley has not yet made a found-footage-style horror movie yet, but even his genre movies have always seemed to have a lot of influence from independent kitchen-sink dramas, and the effect is somewhat the same; both his scripts and his casts' performances prioritize realism over anything close to theatricality. The way that Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia make Martin and Alma feel charmingly ordinary - unmatched instead of mismatched - is probably a lot harder than it looks; it's easy to make characters like these into an odd couple or exaggerate their contrast, because stories often see their main pairing as a puzzle to solve; these two grow closer in an intense situation naturally but it's not about anything but that. Fry and Torchia sketch the pair well and perhaps benefit from not having time to overthink things, even if it might sometimes make their characters feel simple compared to typical horror movie leads. Reece Shearsmith and Hayley Squires aren't quite so grounded in their performances, but one sort of expects the woods to do that; on the other pole, folks like John Hollingworth and Mark Monero do some nice work grounding what is inherently an odd situation in thoroughly believable ground.

The main story, itself, is the sort of thing Wheatley is good at, digging under the surface of modern Britain to see how it is influenced by ancient tradition and folklore, in this case quite literally, as Wheatley finds inspiration in recent research about how tree root systems can actually act as a communications network to make those concepts literal. He combines that with his usual sharp eye for getting the most out of a simple location - the woods themselves have a personality, but every bit of human habitation seems off, even the lodge which seems cast against type as a scientific base camp. He knows how to get weird with the imagery and editing but still communicate, and lets Clint Mansell's unearthly score carry a fair amount of weight. It sounds neither human nor mechanical, so it's not hard to believe that sampled plant sounds were used.

Even in the best of cases, making this sort of bare-bones horror movie can be a challenge, and a world-wide pandemic is not the best case. There are moments when the filmmakers can't quite square scenes of two people talking with their widescreen framing where the bumpiness seems to go beyond Martin and Alma getting to know each other, enough to make one wonder if safety restrictions kept everyone from being on the set the same day or necessitated fewer takes with smaller crews. Not being able to get things just right might also be a factor with the multiple times when he maybe goes for too easy a gross-out, like he wants to make a point about how inhospitable nature is but can't resist the reaction he'll get from the squeamish. It's also worth noting that there's a warning about stroboscopic effects at the start of the film and it's not messing around, but even appreciating what the filmmakers are doing, it may still be a little much.

The ambition here is impressive, and Wheatley does nifty work in updating the sort of 1960s/1970s British horror and thriller that the title sequence implies into something modern. The pandemic ultimately may prove one challenge too many, but In the Earth is still more interesting than most horror movies and effective despite its shortcomings.

Also at eFilmCritic

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