WAs the mainstream film industry struggled with the restrictions of the Covid crisis, the horror genre offered creative opportunities for those willing to take risks. Last year saw the writing, filming and releasing of Rob Savage Host, a brilliantly stripped-down online session cooler, custom-designed for home viewing.
Meanwhile, high rise Director Ben Wheatley went the other way, conjuring up a big-screen outdoor fiesta (written during the first lockdown and shot quickly last summer) that plays like a 15th-century mashup Malleus maleficarum and the 2020 book by Merlin Sheldrake on the theme of mycelium Tangled life – all redesigned as a trippy horror film. A modern accompaniment to Wheatley’s eccentric 2013 Civil War film A field in England (with country views and tied rope walks) it might well have been called A Forest in England.
In a world ravaged by a deadly pandemic, Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) joins the park scout Alma (Ellora Torchia) on a Blair Witch hike through the British forests. They meet up with Dr Wendle (Hayley Squires), a renegade scientist who studies how plant life is linked underground, like a giant brain. But in recent days, Hansel and Gretel aren’t alone, with ominous traces of missing travel companions suggesting something nasty is coming this way. Does anyone in the forest watch them? Or is it the mythical spirit of the woods of Parnag Fegg?
To reveal much more about the plot, which channels everything from Algernon Blackwood’s early 20th-century novel the willowsļthrough the 70s gem written by Nigel Kneale The stone ribbon, to Alex Garland 2018 Annihilation, would spoil a delicious element of discovery. Suffice to say that, as with all of Wheatley’s best works, In the ground combines humor and horror in a terribly confusing way, especially during a grueling amputation streak that will have you squirming, laughing, and grinning all at once.
Elsewhere, Cyriak Harris’ spiraling animations combine with inventive behind-the-scenes visuals (kudos to production designer Felicity Hickson and cinematographer Nick Gillespie) to prove that, as Reece Shearsmith’s bewitched hermit observes , Zach: “Photography is like magic.
Wheatley once flirted with the traps of popular British horror in Kill list, a thriller that unexpectedly slipped into the bizarre Wicker Man–pagan ritual style. Here he draws on the monochrome experiments of A field in England to evoke colorful immersive explosions of sight and sound, reminiscent of the glorious visionary excesses of Ken Russell Modified states.
You can almost hear Wheatley chuckling with glee on some of the weirdest sequences in the film, with Clint Mansell’s magnificent giallo-tinged score intertwining with Martin Pavey’s throbbing sound designs, like vast sonic mycorrhizae. The result absolutely begs to be experienced on the biggest screen possible in a dark room with the sound cranked up to 11, engulfing the viewer in his delightfully dark spell.
Sometimes I remembered the offbeat eco-themes of sci-fi writer John Wyndham, most notably in a wonderfully heady sequence in which the forest traps its human visitors with a fog of mushroom spores. There are also allusions to the retro 70s pastoral gothic seen recently in the Canadian Doomsday mock documentary. enter, in which the gates of heaven or hell hide among the foliage of celluloid unearthed.
However, whatever the tangential comparisons, In the ground is unmistakably the product of Wheatley’s unique foul imagination, an imagination that grew like a psilocybin-rich mushroom on the scorching-inspired heap of Nicolas Roeg and John Boorman, filtered through a viral comedy apprenticeship and romance long-standing lawless dystopian horror.
From there, Wheatley gets ready to film the game “Jason Statham shark-puncher” The mega 2 (I can’t wait to see what he does with it!). In the meantime, this cheerfully mischievous film serves as both a timely response and an unruly retort to the lockdown restrictions, a frightening breath of fresh air with a pantheistic sting in the tail.