It was inevitable that the pandemic was going to end up being a presence at Sundance 2021 and that it would be the first festival where the effects of Covid-19 would really be felt. It’s a festival almost entirely made up of films that were shot in the preceding year, so even if they were written beforehand, most had been filmed under the restrictions of Covid-19. Some films, from the conception point, were reactions to the pandemic or made the decision to incorporate it in some way. This being Sundance, there have certainly been varying results in terms of the success of that choice. With British director Ben Wheatley’s version of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca making its debut on Netflix in October 2020, it barely seems real that we have another feature film from that same director just three months later. Hopes have not been particularly high, after Rebecca got a critical panning and people were wondering how good a “rushed” film that had already been written, shot and edited during a pandemic could really be.

Well, I’m here to tell you that Wheatley’s ‘pandemic’ film is, in fact, brilliant. If you’re understandably worried about watching a film that has the pandemic as a plot point, it’s not really an issue here. The set up at the start is that there is a mysterious (unnamed) situation going on, which is similar to what we’re currently going through. After the first few minutes, it becomes nothing but a backdrop to the increasingly bizarre events which unfold in a forest wilderness, miles from civilisation.

Martin (Joel Fry, who has just been cast as Wentworth in Persuasion opposite Sarah Snook) is led through the forest by Alma (Midsommar‘s Ellora Torchia), on a quest to find his missing former colleague Dr Wendell (I Daniel Blake‘s Hayley Squires). While camping, they are attacked by an unseen force and their shoes and radio are stolen. They then bump into Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a hermit living alone in the woods, who is kind to them – giving them soup and shoes. But Zach is not all that he seems…

I’ll be honest, I was not having a particularly good festival until Reece Shearsmith swooped in and saved the day. The star of The League of Gentlemen, Psychoville and Inside No 9 is best known for the phenomenally inventive and frequently grotesque work that he co-writes (mainly with Steve Pemberton). He has worked with Wheatley a couple of times before and it’s a match made in heaven. Without giving too much away about Shearsmith’s character here, let’s just say, it’s as bizarre as you would expect.

The trippy visuals start off with a ‘real world’ grounding – a chase scene lit by strobes and flares, for example. They do become increasingly psychedelic as the film goes on and the forest starts to take on a life of its own. Nature becoming a living and malevolent presence is something we’ve seen recently in Alex Garland’s Annihilation and the little-seen Greek myth film Entwined. The environment taking vengeance is understandable, given what we’ve done to the natural world, and the blurring between pandemic themes with the climate crisis is definitely something I noticed at this festival. The references to a Spirit of the Woods called Parnag Fegg, as well as the Malleus Maleficarum are interesting folkloric twists on this theme as well.

Wheatley’s striking images are perfectly matched by Clint Mansell’s phenomenal electronic score and it will be hard to imagine getting many better film scores this year. When Martin and Alma do eventually find Dr Wendell, she is using light and sound to try to communicate with the forest – in fact, the whole experience of watching this film is what one can only imagine being at a prog rock concert in the 70s on heavy amounts of drugs was like.

It’s safe to say that In the Earth exceeded expectations in terms of what could be achieved in a short amount of time and within the restrictions of film-making during 2020. Even without those provisos, it’s a gnarly, earthy British horror film with extremely fun performances, hallucinatory images and a brain-rattling score. While it could have perhaps been ten minutes shorter, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable entry for Wheatley (dare I say, as fun as Free Fire?). With his name being attached to everything from the next Tomb Raider to a sequel of The Meg, it’s safe to say he’s going to keep us guessing.

Rating: ★★★★