If the glitzy misfire of last year’s Rebecca was something of an outlier in Ben Wheatley’s career, then In the Earth finds the filmmaker back on more familiar terrain. In fact, it may be the most Ben Wheatley film he’s made yet, drawing on modes of storytelling, techniques and themes he’s used in over a decade of feature films. A response to the pandemic, and conceived, written, and produced on a small budget during the lifting of lockdown restrictions last Summer, this lysergic freak-out folk horror is slightly rough and uneven. It is however, full of the director’s surreal personality and the gnarly violence and black humour that he has always employed.

During the third wave of a deadly virus, Dr Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) is journeying on foot through a large forest in order to find a virus research hub that was staffed by his colleague, Olivia Wendell (Hayley Squires). She’s been out of contact for months and Lowery hopes to catch up with her and the developments in her research. Accompanying him is no-nonsense guide Alma (Ellora Torchia). On their first night in the woods, the two are beaten and everything stolen, including their shoes. They come across Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a seemingly kindly hermit who offers shelter and patches up a nasty injury in Martin’s foot. Of course, this being a Wheatley pic, Zach’s eccentricity masks something far more malevolent.

Wheatley films are mostly a little too weird to attach easy descriptors such as familiarity, but there aren’t so much echoes of his previous work as primal screams. In the Earth is a clear symbiosis between the brutal pagan horror of Kill List and the psychedelic English Civil War madness of A Field In England (still his finest work). Both of these present a blunt collision between man, myth, and nature, and the same esoteric spirit infuses his latest. As such, the restrictions under which it was made aren’t in evidence, as he’s more than used to working under tight conditions with limited resources. Here the mythology involves an elemental forest spirit known as Parnag Fegg, and the influence this ancient force has over Zach leads to some impressively nasty body horror at the expense of the somewhat milquetoast Mike.

This second act is the strongest, leaning into Wheatley’s blackly comic sensibilities and getting a performance of restrained derangement from Shearsmith, whose own work with The League of Gentlemen is completely in tune with this type of material. Genuinely tense, increasingly disturbing, and expertly played, it’s something of a pity when the story branches out further and things get increasingly disorientating, kaleidoscopic, and abstract. Here, Wheatley uses the trippy fast cutting, discordant ambience, and fragmented narration of A Field in England, suggesting something terrifying rather than showing us directly. However, where the use of those techniques in that film implied some strange, alchemical ritual that couldn’t possibly be described, much less shown, it was in the service of a coherent narrative conclusion. Here, it obfuscates rather than simply masks. While still hugely technically brilliant; a potent smashing of science and nature – and also calling to mind films like Annihilation and The Girl with All the Gifts – it feels slightly anti-climactic given the straight-forward, grungy thrills provided earlier.

Still, this is very much a return to form, and is all the better for keeping the pandemic as background, rather than as an active threat. Wheatley has said that In the Earth; ‘isn’t about Covid, but doesn’t ignore it.’ The paraphernalia of lockdown is very much present – social distancing, hand gel, and a preoccupation with infection that heads into Lizzie Borden territory – but Wheatley knows it’s what we don’t know that is more frightening, and a year of viral worry has proved wearying. Mad, ancient, evil forest spirits? That’s more like it. Ample evidence that he’s at his best when operating under constraints, Into the Earth is flawed and muddled, but it’s great to see the return of one of our finest genre specialist’s maverick spirit.

Screened as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021