Horror tales often involve powerful forces working underground. Mycorrhizae, or symbiotic relationships between plant roots and fungi, do the trick. Since mycorrhizae are not sensitive and benign, however – environmentalists tout their soil-improving properties – they make an unlikely star for a horror film. That didn’t stop Ben Wheatley, who wrote and directed this trippy UK weirdness that premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is now streaming on Hulu.
During a pandemic, scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) is sent to help government researcher Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires) investigate a mycorrhizal ecosystem. However, Dr. Wendle hasn’t been out of his remote research station in months, so Ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) guides Martin deep into the forest.
During their long trek, the couple encounter both natural obstacles and hostile humans. After unknown assailants steal their shoes, Martin seriously injures his foot on the forest floor. A woodlander named Zach (Reece Shearsmith) offers to help. Martin and Alma follow the affable boy to his home, a tent complex that looks like an art installation. They soon regret it.
Will you like it?
Director Wheatley is sort of a part-time writer. Fan of his dark and absurd dramas Kill list and The tourists, I was disheartened when his remake of Rebecca because Netflix was a crazy romance with nothing bad or weird about it. His next big project is the sequel to the killer-shark blockbuster the mega.
But somehow, between the making of these two highly commercial films, Wheatley achieved In the ground, which seems designed to be the very essence of WTF cinema.
The film shows the influence of several genres and generations of cult horror. Shot in just 15 days, In the ground has the dirty, low budget feel of ’70s horror movies such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Although not a film of found images, the sylvan setting inevitably recalls The Blair Witch Project, especially combined with the key role played by the fable of a spirit of the woods. There are strong signs of ecological horror. And Dr. Wendle, when we finally meet her, beautifully embodies the Mad Scientist archetype, thanks to Squires’ electrical performance.
Wheatley subverts some of these familiar motifs in a clever way. The main characters represent a gender role reversal from traditional horror, for example: Alma is stoic and physically competent, while Martin continually moans, moans and injures himself.
Zach occupies the place of the creepy local that looms large in all variations of the “cabin in the woods” story. Far from being a jerk, however, he is an educated transplant recipient in the forest who brings out the virtues of herbs and the pleasures of darkroom photography in an important way. He also has a knack for disturbing tongue-in-cheek humor, assuring a victim a hit won’t hurt because “My ax is so sharp.”
When the film isn’t busy distinguishing between crass horror and absurd comedy, it hints at big, vague ideas. Dr Wendle attempts to use light and sound to communicate with the forest’s mycorrhizal network, which she says can be sensitive. Martin’s festering wound evokes primitive fears about the contamination of humans by the inhuman. And the context of the pandemic – no disease is ever named – makes human civilization seem inherently precarious. Maybe we’ve had our day, and it’s time for these ingenious plants to take over.
The problem with In the ground is that Wheatley never engages in any of these ideas. Fans of body horror will wait in vain for a horrific union of man and mushroom, while fans of more subtle psychological scares will regret the characters’ lack of interiority. Despite all the skills of the actors, they feel like the actors of an improvisational sketch – sharp but superficial.
Powered by thrilling electronic score by Clint Mansell and strobe visuals from Wheatley – photosensitive people beware! – In the ground is undeniably a journey. But it’s a journey that only takes us on a tour of references to better movies.
If you like it, try …
Kill list (2011; AMC +, IFC Films Unlimited, Shudder, commendable): Wheatley has jumped into the recent revival of folk horror with this cult film that starts off as a crime thriller and gradually becomes something much stranger.
Annihilation (2018; Paramount +, Sling, commendable): Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s sci-fi novel is also a trippy plant life tale, but it offers more substance.
“Hannibal”, Season 1, Episode 2 (2013; Hulu, commendable): If you’re a body horror fan who wants to see man go mushroom (I’m sure there are a few of you!), Check out this episode of the series. cult horror of Bryan Fuller. You’ll never see composting the same way again.