Sundance 2021 Reviews: ‘In the Earth,’ and ‘Coming Home in the Dark’

A trippy folk horror for the pandemic era and a nerve-wracking road thriller from New Zealand – both offer thrills with a side of wooziness.

Reece Shearsmith appears in In the Earth by Ben Wheatley, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

In the Earth – Writer/director Ben Wheatley (High-Rise, Free Fire) was inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic to make this unusual folk horror/thriller that evokes Wicker Man meets Annihilation vibes. In a remote forest in a pandemic-ridden world, Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) and park ranger, Alma (Ellora Torchia – (who seems to be on a folk horror roll after also appearing in Midsommar)), embark on a mission to reach a research hub deep within the forest. When a nighttime attack leaves them wounded and defenseless, they take shelter with a mysterious man, Zach (Reece Shearsmith), who’s living off the grid. But things soon take a nasty turn when they realize that Zach’s intentions aren’t what they appear. From there, things take a psychedelic turn as myth and reality become harder to separate.

Combining an unnerving synth score (by Clint Mansell), mystical allusions, and nature itself to instill a feeling of unease and danger – oh and strobe lights, lots and lots of strobe lights (don’t say I didn’t warn you) – In the Earth explores the duality of science vs nature in an untamed world, how isolation can lead to madness, and how the absence of knowledge and man’s quest for understanding can lead to the creation of myth. As Martin and Alma try desperately to find their way back to safety, their ideas about who or what is really in control begin to shift and their world turns upside down.

United Kingdom. (Director and Screenwriter: Ben Wheatley, Producer: Andy Starke). Cast: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Hayley Squires, Reece Shearsmith.

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Coming Home in the Dark – In another case of worlds turning upside down, Director James Aschcroft’s bleakly harrowing feature debut follows a New Zealand family whose afternoon picnic outing turns into a bloody nightmare when two mysterious men take them hostage – a seemingly random act that sets them all on a collision course with the ghosts of their pasts. Held captive on an unhinged road trip through the New Zealand wilderness with the menacing Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) behind the wheel, and his brooding accomplice Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) in tow, teacher Alan (Erik Thomson) and his wife Jill (Miriama McDowell) must decide how to react to the evil confronting them as they careen toward an unknown fate.

Even as the story twists and turns, the suspense never lets up. With something to say about the long shadow of New Zealand’s state care system – particularly the treatment of children within such institutional settings – and of how violence begets violence, the biggest question of the film seems to be – what do you do when confronted with evil? Do you stand by and let it happen or do you step up and confront it? In questioning the idea of the traditional hero, perhaps the answers are messier than we like to believe.

New Zealand. (Director: James Ashcroft, Screenwriters: Eli Kent, James Ashcroft, Producers: Mike Minogue, Catherine Fitzgerald, Desray Armstrong). Cast: Daniel Gillies, Erik Thomson, Miriama McDowell, Matthias Luafutu.

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