After his tedious detour to Netflix for last year’s “Rebecca” remake, “In the Earth” finds the eccentric British horrormeister Ben Wheatley back at the top of his craft and in the fields of the weird. Written and filmed under quarantine, it’s one of the first movies to incorporate aspects of life under pandemic, mostly as paranoid trimmings around the fringes. Primarily, it’s a pagan freak-out filmed with gorgeous and discombobulating attention to detail.
A biologist named Martin (Joel Fry) arrives at a rural British lodge, normally overrun by tourists but now empty save for a few government health officials. He’s headed into the deep forest to join a colleague, Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who’s researching the “microsial mat,” a network of tree and plant roots tied together into one immense super-organism. Martin’s guide on the 30-mile trek is Alma (Ellora Torchia), an experienced backwoodswoman, and as soon as they step foot into the woods, the vibe gets strange and eldritch. Could those old tales of a Green Man figure named Parnag Fegg be true?
“In the Earth” ties into a long tradition of British folk horror — of pre-Christian rituals and spirits of the land reclaiming us lost moderns — but it owes as much to Wheatley’s 2013 film, “A Field in England,” as to movies like “The Wicker Man” (the 1973 original, not the Nicolas Cage remake). Like “Field,” the new movie has a sneakily dark sense of humor, a taste for the odd bit of gore, and a love of psychedelic mushrooms and cinematic hallucinations. After being set upon mysteriously in the dark, Martin and Alma find themselves taken prisoner by Zach (Reece Shearsmith), an amiable but definitely insane hermit who has a Renfield-like fealty to Whatever It Is that’s living in the forest. Zach is a dab hand at herbal knockout potions and the occasional amateur amputation, and there’s a scene featuring the latter in which Wheatley indulges his twin tastes for deadpan comedy and head-on gross-outs to the extreme. If nothing else, it’s useful for clearing out the uncommitted.
Eventually “In the Earth” settles into a battle between Religion and Science, with Zach worshiping the forest god while Dr. Wendle tries to communicate with it through technology. In the middle of these two zealots are beleaguered, bloodied Martin and Alma, and presumably the audience as well. Fry usually plays antic supporting roles (as in 2019′s “Yesterday”), and it’s nice to see him bring a hapless hero to life. The appealingly hardheaded Torchia didn’t make it out of “Midsommar” alive, so she should know better than to go into the woods with Druidic beasties lying in wait.
Wheatley cranks the psychotronic editing and hallucinogenic visuals up to 11 in the film’s wingding of a climax and you’ll either hold on tight or say uncle. I don’t think he’d mind either way, so sure is the director’s grasp on the fundamentals of filmmaking and so trusting is he in his ongoing collaborators: cinematographer Nick Gillespie, at play in the fields of wide-screen; composer Clint Mansell, whose score evokes Popol Vuh and other 70s trip-movie musicmakers; and especially sound designer Martin Pavey, who brings this ancient, alien forest to life for the ears. Does “In the Earth” run off the rails into addled sensationalism in the end? Yes. But while it’s steaming ahead at full power, Wheatley’s magic mushroom trip is a grueling yet exhilarating ride.
IN THE EARTH
Written and directed by Ben Wheatley. Starring Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Hayley Squires, Reece Shearsmith. At Boston Common, suburbs. 106 minutes. R (strong violent content, grisly images, language)