The pandemic has indeed changed everyone’s life. In fact, as Dr. Martin Lowrey galumphs his way up to Gantalow Lodge—then gets sprayed, prodded and stuck by the current masked residents, all in an effort to keep a deadly disease at bay—he can’t help but think that this lovely resort would normally be populated by vacationing families.
Not this year, though. This year it’s being used by researchers who believe that the surrounding forest may offer a key to a pandemic cure. In fact, that’s why Martin is there, too. Or at least partly. He’s been working with Dr. Olivia Wendle, who’s made some interesting discoveries concerning the forest’s interconnected systems of growth.
But, in truth, he’s also here because he’s been worried about Olivia. Her letters, sent out from her isolated wooded research facility—a collection of tents and sound and light equipment—suddenly stopped coming a few months back. And Martin hasn’t been able to get her off his mind. It’s almost as if something is calling him to her. Calling and calling.
His concern is only heightened when he hears that other researchers have actually gone missing while working in these ancient woods. The researchers at the lodge tell him that those men and women’s disappearances aren’t isolated incidents, either. It seems that people have often gotten turned around and lost in that forest over the years. There is even an old folktale about something called Parnag Fegg, a forest spirit that’s said to travel the dense, thick timberland, snatching up haplass wanderers.
That’s all nonsense, of course. But as Martin is guided into the forest by a ranger named Alma, he can’t help but feel the isolating oddness of the woods around him. This is more than just a stretch of miles and miles of trees and scrub. This heavily wooded place feels alive, restless and almost … dangerous.
When he and Alma wake up face down on the forest floor in the morning—their camping gear scattered and, oddly enough, their shoes missing—Martin realizes that the threat around him isn’t just a weird feeling on a forest trek.
There is danger here.
The pandemic is frightening. But something in this forest might well be far worse.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Martin sets off into the woods out of concern for someone he cares about. And both he and Alma put their lives on the line for each other as things go from bad to worse.
There’s a combination of twisted witchcraft and pagan Earth-focused mysticism in the spiritual mix of this story. Two different people use hallucinogenic drugs, physical torture and human sacrifice in an attempt to communicate with Parnag Fegg, which is described at different times as a spirit entity, as a person with supernatural powers, as nature itself and as a sentient ecosystem.
One person has found a book called the Hammer of the Witch. And says she has performed rituals from the book in her communication process. This person also gives Martin a hallucinogenic compound she calls “the sacrament” and demands that he drink it next to a sacred stone marked with hieroglyphics. Another individual carves those same symbols in Martin’s skin. And that individual takes pictures of unconscious or dead people posed in specific, ritualistic tableaus.
While unconscious, both Alma and Martin are stripped and re-dressed in specially constructed garments. We see a shadow image of their clothing being pulled away, but nudity is kept outside the camera’s eye.
Very realistic, up-close hacking and slashing of skin and body parts constitutes a large portion of the tale on hand. And the camera doesn’t shy away from those images. Someone slashes open a foot on a sharp stone, for instance, and we later see that large bloody gash and its flap of skin stitched slowly and painfully together with rough hemp thread. And when the wound becomes infected and grossly goopy, then parts of the foot are chopped away by a hatchet.
That’s only one of the torturous moments in the mix. We also see a variety of fleshy body parts purposely cut open and watch as the wounds are sewn back together for ritualistic purposes. Several people are chased and hit with large sharp objects and knives. People are pummeled with heavy metal objects which leave large bloody gashes on their forehead and scalp. Someone has a metal tool driven into his eye. He then attempts to painfully extract the metal shaft before it’s driven into his brain by a heavy kick.
We see evidence of other people who have been attacked and killed in the woods. In one case we see the torn-open camp of a couple who apparently had a child with them. Martin also stumbles over the slashed-open corpses of several people. His hand lands in an open cavity of one victim and he pulls out the woman’s intestines with his hand.
We hear about four or five uses each of both the f- and the s-words, along with a few other sundry crudities. Jesus’ name is misused once.
Martin and Alma both smoke cigarettes. And they’re both given a variety of drugs in liquid and pill form that repeatedly send them tottering over and knock them unconscious. There are also forest mushrooms that emit clouds of hallucinogenic spores that send several people into psychedelic states, amplifying their sensitivity to light and sound. These events repeatedly flood the screen with spinning, light-flashing visuals and amplify sounds to a jarring, pulsating, swirling cacophony.
People abuse the trust of others.
It’s been reported that last year, early in the pandemic lockdown, director Ben Wheatley wrote this COVID-inspired script and then quickly produced the movie over the summer.
The result? A creepy, Blair Witch Project-like romp through the woods. But In the Earth is more than just indie-pic creepy. This gruesome, unsettling horror pic mixes pagan mysticism, science, witchy ritual and torn flesh into a nightmarish visual and sonic cinematic assault—a torture-porn hallucinatory drug trip.
Some may see it as Wheatley’s artistic take on the mental anguish wrought by disease, locked-down isolation and fear. If that’s the case, one can only hope he gets out more.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.