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Reece Shearsmith looks for people to use his axe on in "In the Earth."

Most filmmaking activity has shut down during this pandemic, but not all of it. Inevitably, some directors were always going to look at the mandates for social distancing and face masks as a challenge to make a film under such adverse conditions. In the Earth was shot in a few days last summer under Britain’s COVID guidelines, and it comes to our multiplexes this weekend showing writer-director Ben Wheatley back to his old self, which is mostly a good thing

The film is set during a pandemic that’s not our current one but something worse. While the urban areas are being ravaged, Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) is happy to be deep in the forest, arriving at a ranger station en route to checking on fellow agriculture researcher and ex-girlfriend Olivia (Hayley Squires), who is looking into the possibility of farming in the woods. He’s accompanied by park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) on the two-day trek from the station to Olivia’s camp, but on the second night, they’re pulled out of their tents and beaten by persons unknown who steal their shoes. To exacerbate things, Martin slices open his bare foot on something sharp. They meet a man named Zach (Reece Shearsmith) who lives in the forest and stitches up Martin’s foot. If you’re familiar with Wheatley’s films, you might suspect that this calm, soft-spoken, long-haired man is actually raving mad. That’s a good impulse to have.

If you’re after a movie about a slasher with an axe chasing people through the forest, this one does come through on that score. Shearsmith (who previously starred in Wheatley’s completely insane A Field in England) makes Zach into a scarier villain for being darkly funny on occasion, especially during a climactic struggle with Alma. Clint Mansell contributes an appropriately bizarre industrial score, and Wheatley makes great use of the flashing strobe lights around Olivia’s camp that disorient the other characters — if the theater showing this movie doesn’t have a warning for viewers who are epileptic, consider this my warning. He does well with the roving cloud of hallucinogenic mushroom spores that confine Alma and Martin to Olivia’s camp and seems to be moving intelligently. When characters inhale the spores, Wheatley uses micro-flashbacks to convey its psychedelic effects in ways we haven’t seen since the glory days of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Then there’s the continuing saga of Martin’s foot, which becomes infected. Wheatley shows us its deterioration in graphic terms, culminating in a horrifying scene when Zach takes treatment into his own hands. Remember the scene from Misery with Kathy Bates and James Caan’s feet? This is like that, only more gruesome.

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The movie runs into trouble when its ambitions go beyond this. Wheatley’s script nods to the locals worshipping a deity known as Parnagg Fegg, but that subplot comes to nothing. The same goes for the theme of social isolation, even though Olivia appears to have gone all Colonel Kurtz in the woods. A24 alone has put out a whole library of horror films around this subject that strike deeper. The movie also has little to say on the foolishness of people who think they can ride out a pandemic by going off the grid. The recent Borat sequel made that point better just by putting its characters next to some real-life Luddites and letting us see their rotten minds. Too often, I sense that Wheatley is less interested in telling a story than in deploying his formidable arsenal of cinematic techniques, and that’s what I feel like here.

Still, after he went all conventional in his roundly underwhelming Netflix adaptation of Rebecca, it’s good to see Wheatley back to the weirdness of films such as Sightseers, High-Rise, and Free Fire. His movies don’t often receive wide distribution, and right now there’s not much competition in our multiplexes, so In the Earth is a good chance to take in his perverse brand of artistry.

In the Earth
Starring Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia. Written and directed by Ben Wheatley. Rated R.

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