In The Earth review: A surrealist, acid-trip take on horror

In the Earth. Courtesy of Neon
In the Earth. Courtesy of Neon /

Now that we’re four months into the year – past February slump season but still a ways away from the fall/Halloween boom – horror films tend to be in short supply. Those few horror films that do snag a spring or summer release often tend to be the most unorthodox of the bunch – films like Midsommar and Hereditary, both saw summer releases. So, following in its predecessors’ unpredictable footsteps, NEON’s In the Earth splashes onto streaming this weekend – a bizarre, surrealistic, acid-trip take on horror that never loses its sense of self – through it may stumble over its own feet trying to get there.

Though it’s difficult to sum it up without delving into major spoilers or giving ourselves a migraine, In the Earth follows mild-mannered scientist Martin (Joel Fry), who arrives at a mysterious quarantined woods in an attempt to discover a cure for a deadly virus. He’s guided through the woods by local park scout Alma (Ellora Torchia), but the further they venture into the unknown, the more things start to go awry – and they quickly run afoul of not only the forest itself but its violent inhabitants – including the deranged axe wielding Zach (Reece Shearsmith).

While that sounds like your typical, run-of-the-mill psychological horror flick (we’d best describe it as fitting somewhere between Midsommar and Annihilation), what’s strange about In the Earth is how much stock it places in the hard mechanics of its narrative.

Much of the film’s runtime is devoted to Martin and Alma discussing the possible scientific explanations for the strange phenomena around them – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. Except, in In the Earth‘s case, there’s the unfortunate dilemma of these explanations a) being extraordinarily difficult (and frankly uninteresting) to follow, and b) having practically no significant impact on the film’s narrative.

Martin’s research may jumpstart the plot, but when we’re an hour in and the film is still trying to explore the why and not the what of the creepy woodsy hijinks, things begin to feel trite, confusing, and borderline boring. What’s even more bizarre, though, is that in between these (admittedly significant) stretches of technobabble and info-dumping lies a surreal black horror-comedy, with some truly jaw-dropping moments that left us incredulous as to whether or not we’d actually witness what we thought we’d just witnessed.

Again, this is the type of film that’s difficult to concretely describe in terms of narrative beats without getting lost or spoiling it entirely, but once Reece Shearsmith’s Zach is introduced, the film takes a (much needed) and drastic shift in tone – nearly becoming a sort of black comedy that uses the paranoia and confusion its first hour has built up to gaslight both the audience and the characters as to what’s actually going on. It’s an incredibly clever way to sink one’s teeth into the audience – every scene with Zach is electric, and the bizarreness of his character is only heightened by the unremarkable nature of the film’s first hour.

But while the truly insane, balls-to-the-wall moments are where In the Earth shines the brightest, the same reason that makes those moments work also acts as a detriment in the long run – because the significant stretches of inaction grow tiresome, and point to a serious pacing issue. There’s also the matter of the film nearly writing Zach out altogether and replacing him with a new character about 3/4 of the way through, only to bring him back in a manner that almost feels like an afterthought – certainly a disservice to such a vibrant character and the insanely-iconic comedy/horror performance from Reece Shearsmith.

Playing beautifully off of Shearsmith’s macabre humor is straight man/unwilling victim Martin, whom Joel Fry portrays with just the right amounts of mundanity and humanity to make him easy to root for, believable, and still nonsensical enough to get himself stuck in his predicament in the first place. Ellora Torchia has significantly less to do as park ranger/guide Alma, though she makes for a compelling deuteragonist and brings her own element of humor and humanity to the narrative. Rounding out the cast is Hayley Squire as Olivia, the late-game addition whose presence in the narrative isn’t particularly necessary or memorable – Squire’s performance is similarly unremarkable.

While the film’s tone and pacing may fluctuate wildly, its sense of self and sharp edge of aesthetics certainly doesn’t – it’s a visual feast of hypnotic, sleepy landscapes, dizzying editing that heightens the paranoia, and stunning sound design that’s perfectly complemented by a synth-based score.

For aesthetic qualities alone, In the Earth would certainly be worth the watch – but combined with the truly brilliant moments of surrealist comedy that blurs the lines between genres, it’s such a magnetic film that even the most egregious pacing issues and convoluted plot devices can be forgiven. Though you may not leave the theatre understanding what you watched, you’ll undoubtedly have had a good time.

Next. Things Heard and Seen review: A middling paranormal thriller. dark

Are you planning to give In the Earth a look? Let us know in the comments.