Review: Ben Wheatley’s ‘In the Earth’ summons the important nature of folk scary

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There was a plague in England — the same pandemic that people happen to be living through — like writer/director Ben Wheatley began the script for “In the Earth, ” early in the 2020 lockdown. As such, it is a quarantine film that truly captures the world of surgical face masks and nasal swabs plus social distancing.

The extreme caution and danger dictated by the plague include an extra layer of risk to “In the Earth, ” a film that draws from a deep well of horror references, including “Frankenstein” plus “The Wicker Man. ” Wheatley has dabbled within folk horror before, remarkably in “Kill List” plus “A Field in England, ” but the subgenre, which grapples with the clash of the historic and the modern, is especially suited to a story like “In the planet earth, ” troubled as it is by mysterious rhythms of the world, and their effect on the body and mind. Just when it seems like nature is out to get us, Ben Wheatley reminds us that it is. Unless, naturally , we’re out to get yourself.

Joel Fry stars as Martin, a pleasant, nerdy, socially awkward scientist who arrives at an abandoned lodge that’s been converted to a forest management way station. He sets out on a lengthy hike into the woods, guided by Alma (Ellora Torchia), a sharp and intuitive ranger. He intends to deliver several equipment to a former friend, Dr . Olivia Wendle ( Hayley Squires ), who has been running experiments in the forest, however the journey is too arduous, plus he’s too vague regarding their relationship, for this to be a mere errand and Alma knows it.

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Just before they depart, Martin spots an ominous piece of art work at the lodge, depicting a dark figure overseeing a ritual. Alma informs him that this is Parnag Fegg, a witch of nearby folklore who has become a cautionary tale to warn kids away from the forest. Only when the tale deterred grown ups, too.

Plunging ever deeper to the green, the pair are usually met with violence as a result of a disturbed hermit, Zach (Reece Shearsmith). He purports to talk to nature itself, producing offerings of his art with the unwilling participation from the few passersby. The entrance of Dr . Wendle appears a relief, until they will realize that she, too, talks to the forest, through her own scientific, yet inherently questionnable, system. The woods have become her own monstrous creation, an eerie hybrid of nature and technology that keens and croaks and seemingly blocks whomever comes near.

Wheatley’s film works on a purely elemental levels; like nature itself, the film is a sensory event, the narrative often subsumed by the aural and visual experience. Clint Mansell’s brilliant score vibrates and reverberates through time, synths plus bells blending with the atmospheric, often punishing, sound design. Every cinematic element is made to unnerve the viewer. Some choices, like Wheatley’s special approach to film editing — making rapid little slashes when you least expect all of them — are more successful compared to others, such as the abstrusely hallucinatory montages.

Wheatley crafts a plague film that isn’t necessarily about a plague, but that captures the anxiety and fear of invisible forces beyond our control impelling us, unconsciously, into danger. Fry could be the perfect modern-day version of Sgt. Howie from “The Wicker Man, ” the well-meaning volunteer who traipses into a peril he could by no means understand. But Wheatley doesn’t offer any explanations, terry or otherwise, instead letting all of us sit with the uneasiness that people might never fully comprehend the natural world and its energies, malicious or benevolent.

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Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Company film critic.

‘In the Earth’

Scored: R, intended for strong violent content, grisly images, and language

Running period: 1 hour 40 minutes

Playing: Begins April 16 in general release where theaters are open