‘In the Earth’ and In the Theater: Returning to Horror at the Cinema

On April 25th, 2021 I was on a mission. It was two weeks post-my second Pfizer shot. As far as current data is concerned, I was relatively safe in many activities I had gone without for over a year. Of the many returns I was and am looking forward to, getting back to the cinema was in my Top 5.

As you can likely guess by many of my posts, I love movies. But I also love the experience of going to a movie in a theater. Is it because I take to the smell of popcorn like a cat does to catnip, pupils dilating with unnatural desire? Yes. But I also love that I get to go into a big dark room, my phone must be turned off, and I can focus on just one thing for two hours.

I’m someone with a fulltime job who writes a blog, freelances, and can’t stop scrolling on Reddit. I’ve got a busy brain and a serious addiction to screens. That has only gotten worse during the pandemic, when screens have become the primary way to interact with anything or anyone.

But in a theater? The screen is too big, the sound too loud, the story too new for me to be distracted. Notifications can’t beep on my phone. My impulse to check the latest news or what my friends are up to can’t be indulged. Even if the movie isn’t that great, I can simply immerse in this one experience.

Plus, the theater is the place movies are primarily intended to be viewed. Most movies are designed to be viewed on a large theater screen. Their soundtracks are meant to be played via multiple large speakers in a big room.

For my mission, I had to see a horror movie in the theater after going without for so long.

Horror movies in particular are best viewed in a theater. Movie theaters are much more immersive experiences, which makes horror easier to engage with. Terror is also best translated in a stark, unfamiliar place. In addition, the grotesque, bizarre, and atmospheric visual elements of the horror genre are best viewed on the big screen. Even the simple joy of the jumpscare is best done under the conditions of a theater rather than your couch.

To treat myself, I saw two movies (while still abiding by mask and hand-sanitizer protocols). I saw In The Earth and Promising Young Woman. You’ve probably heard of Promising Young Woman. Because it’s genuinely a good movie, it hits on current events and social change, and it got Oscar attention (and very much deserved its win for Best Original Screenplay). Oh, it also might ring a bell because the trailer features Carey Mulligan in a sexy nurse’s outfit with a rainbow wig.

But I wanted to give a shout out to In The Earth, which you have almost definitely not heard of.
Any films released during the pandemic are coming in at a disadvantage for anyone to notice or see them. Doubly so for horror movies (the ever-loathed redheaded stepchild of film genre), and extra so for indie horror films slapped together over 15 days in August of 2020. Thus, you likely know little about Ben Wheatley’s In The Earth.

In The Earth fits snuggly into the ‘folk horror’ genre shared with Midsommar, The Wickerman, and The Ritual. We go to the woods. We find ancient secrets and mad magic-worshipping hippies. Bloodshed ensues. Also tripping, because the ol’ Mushroom Samba is required for all folk horror these days.

Impressively, In The Earth is one of the few movies not only made during COVID-19, but its story directly echoes the pandemic rather than pretending it isn’t happening. The story takes place during a pandemic that is implied to be far more contagious and deadly than COVID-19.

We are introduced to our protagonist, Martin, as he approaches a remote outpost at the edge of a protected forest area. In a sequence very familiar to us all by now, Martin and everyone he initially interacts with are wearing masks. Martin is subjected to multiple decontamination and testing protocols to ensure he isn’t infected.

From there, Martin and a guide, Alma, go into the protected forest site to search for a scientist. …weirdly, the scientist was experimenting with techniques for crop efficiency and nothing to do with the ongoing pandemic. So, it’s unclear why this is a top-priority project. But off into the woods we go!

Martin and Alma encounter a man named Zach. He’s been living isolated in the woods, supposedly to avoid the pandemic. Again, this idea rings familiar. Many people fled urban areas during COVID.

Zach is my favorite part of the film. He’s a great character and Reece Shearsmith plays him perfectly. Zach is your friendly local madman in the woods. Also, he worships a dead wizard and isn’t very concerned about not hurting other people as a part of his worship. You’d like to get a cup of tea with him, but only if you brew the tea and keep a taser in your back packet.

Between Zach’s zealous flowerchild ways and the missing scientist’s experiments, there is a clear contrast presented. It’s between preserving the ancient, natural world vs tearing it open for modern scientific progress. To me, this also reflects the larger conversation about how COVID-19 came to be vs how to fix it.

Modern scientific progress and technological achievements have given us vaccines (like the very one that let me see this movie). But the spread of the modern world too far into nature, i.e. agricultural spread and contact with zoonotic diseases, has resulted in pandemics like COVID and HIV that have ravaged us.  

In The Earth follows in the footsteps of great horror movies like The Blair Witch Project. It was made quickly and cheaply around a concept that combines being trapped in the woods and elusive dark magic. …unlike The Blair Witch Project, however, In The Earth is unlikely to be much remembered or influential. The plot takes one too many turns for a “the woods are scary” concept. Plus, one of the primary antagonists is…plants. Fungi in particular.

When mushrooms are the enemy, that means tripping makes up a lot of your 1hr 47min journey. Some films do tripping sequences with techniques that aren’t annoying or nauseating for the average viewer, like Midsommar. Others? They slam technicolor stock footage from student art films at a pace so fast that there’s a seizure-warning during the opening credits. …Alas, I think you can guess which category In The Earth falls into.

But. I wouldn’t call In The Earth a bad movie. It isn’t a masterpiece and it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. As I’ve pointed out previously: there are horror films I’ve seen that I didn’t love, but am very glad that I saw in a theater.

In addition, I think credit should be given to a filmmaker and crew that opt to produce a film under extraordinary circumstances. Creating during COVID is an achievement—and if we can praise The Great British Bake-Off for doing it, we can praise a humble little horror movie as well. For example, while I didn’t like the tripping scenes, I understand that those effects were likely the best option available under the circumstances. 

Props to In The Earth for giving me something daring and unique for my return to the movies and an essential part of the horror fan experience.

A Note for Readers, Followers, and Randos:

Now that Your Intrepid Host can safely see movies once again, we’re hoping to generate more current content for Why I Love Horror. If you would like to support that effort, we have set up a Buy Me A Coffee page for the blog. Buy Me A Coffee is a site where you can donate to creators to support their efforts. In our case, think of it as “Buy Me A Popcorn.”

We’ll now be sharing our Buy Me A Coffee button at the bottom of our articles. If you’re so inclined, you can buy as a coffee whenever you read something of ours that you enjoy. It’s a small gesture, but it means a lot.

We’re also offering a Membership option. If you’d like to support us and new content for just $5 / month, you’ll be an official Horror Fan!
Sign up to get:
◉ Support new content regularly ($5 buys a movie ticket on Tuesdays at AMC).
◉ Request a review for us to post.
◉ Access to polls to vote on new content on the blog.
◉ A shout-out on Why I Love Horror.

Regardless, thank you to all of those who read this blog, like articles, and love horror (or at least what we have to say about horror). This blog is really a labor of love, and while it doesn’t require as much blood, sweat, and tears as a slasher flick, it’s still a lot of work. Readers, coffee, and nightmares fuel this blog!

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