In the Earth

British horror film In the Earth deals head-on with COVID-19

We spoke to director Ben Wheatley about his latest film, shot just a few months ago.

Traditionally, low-budget genre films have been the first to tackle societal issues and generally controversial topics. A lack of overhead and of studio supervision, quicker turnaround times due to more limited budgets and the freedom lent to films that were traditionally considered less-than meant that genre films could get away with a lot more much more quickly. Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth is not the first pandemic film to see release in the last 13 months or so, but it’s the first one I’ve seen that doesn’t centre so much of its action through virtual social distancing signifiers. Doug Liman’s Locked Down, for example, took place mainly through Zoom calls, whereas Wheatley’s film sees him going back to the kind of horror films he made in the early part of his career (Kill List, A Field in England and even the dark comedy Sightseers) before he started working on bigger studio films such as Rebecca or the upcoming Tomb Raider sequel (which has since moved into the hands of Lovecraft County creator Misha Green). 

“This is not an unusual pattern for me,” says Wheatley. “Happy New Year, Colin Burstead was the same where it was low-budget, it was made about current events and had to be out by a certain time. Kill List is the same, in many ways. It wasn’t unusual. The Zoom thing is funny, isn’t it, because I was thinking about this idea of the zeitgeist. Everyone talks about the zeitgeist a lot, but it was very apparent during the pandemic. Whatever you might think about, you were not the first person to think about it. It could’ve been, ‘Oh, I need to buy toilet roll,’ nope, it’s all gone; you might’ve thought ‘Oh, well, I’ll buy some flour and make some bread,’ it’s also all gone. I was thinking about a Zoom thing; I thought I was being very clever, but luckily I didn’t get my shit together to do it in time. Then they started popping up all over the place and it was like, ‘Well, of course!’

“But I’m surprised people didn’t go outside to shoot because, the thing is, it’s the safest thing you can do,” he continues. “The statistics for transmission are very low outside. So that was the first conversation we had, really. If we were going to make a film indoors, it would be a total pain in the ass because you’ve got to wipe every surface down all the time and you’ve got these antiseptic foggers that are probably going to be very bad for us in the long run. But they just put detergent over everything and wash everything, which was not gonna happen. But in the end, the actual making of the film was not that bad. Lots of masks and lots of testing and swabs up the nose and all of that, but it really wasn’t that bad against the massive positives of being out there making a movie. All the movies I make are made with a very tight group of people and we all got to see each other. We hadn’t seen each other for months. The film has elements of isolation and what had happened to us and we were actually living it and doing it as we were making the film. There was a very odd feedback between the cast and the crew because of that. It was great.”

Joel Fry plays Martin, a research scientist  who goes out to a remote forest outpost for work and winds up going out deeper into the woods with a forest ranger (Ellora Torchia) on what they believe will be a fairly standard expedition. Instead, they find not only that the two scientists they were meant to meet (Hayley Squires and Reece Shearsmith) have gone somewhat off their gourd, but that nature itself seems to be fighting back.

Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia in In the Earth

It’s perhaps a tough sell to imagine audiences going to theatres to watch a movie about the pandemic, but In the Earth is only really superficially about COVID-19. If anything, it’s about the unknown “after” world that still remains at bay.

“It’s contemporary-set, that’s what it always meant,” says Wheatley. “It’s a comment on stuff and a political film in the way that making a movie right now is inherently political. It’s about the experience they’re having directly because they have it — they don’t need to talk about it. Horror and science fiction are a way of using a metaphor to get around to talking about stuff, but if the metaphor is happening? (laughs) It’s kind of broken.

“I had another project which was sort of a zombie thing. That zombie movie was screwed, ‘cause this is what the zombie apocalypse looks like! This is it! No one wants to hear about that — I’m sure they do now — but so many people are dying and these scenes we see are very reminiscent of zombie movies. The zombie movie itself is kind of a metaphor for civil war, isn’t it? But then it’s kind of a situation where they’ve stepped back into reality by mistake. That’s why you go to genre, to avoid that in the first place, so you can comment about stuff without making it a topic of the week.”

One is tempted to look at many elements of In the Earth and see Wheatley go back to old standards: the pagan folk horror of Kill List, the wooded setting of Sightseers, the kaleidoscopic editing of A Field in England’s most lysergic moments… but Wheatley doesn’t necessarily see it as getting “back to his roots.”

“I try not to think of the classification of the films, because that’s a narrative I can’t control,” he explains. “People just bang them together and go, ‘This means this,’ but does it? I don’t know. If you’re ever in a position to know how hard and how random it is to make movies, you know there is no plan. If it hadn’t been for COVID, I would’ve been making Tomb Raider. How do these two positions join together? They don’t!

“I think that by definition of budget things become a certain way and look a certain way. It allows you to explore things you can’t explore at a higher level of budget and become more nimble in that sort of way. They don’t have to have a massive audience supporting them to become successful; they can become successful in their own way. I always thought Rebecca was like Sightseers and I’m surprised no one really picked up on that. It has the exact same structure as Sightseers. It’s a guy who meets this woman but, oh, turns out he’s a murderer! It’s the exact same film! (laughs)”

In the Earth opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, April 16. Watch the trailer here:

In the Earth, directed by Ben Wheatley

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