British horror at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival:
In The Earth, Censor, and Eight for Silver
The Sundance Film Festival ran from Jan 28th to Feb 3rd in Utah. Andrew Pope joined online to check out some of the latest British horrors flying the flag out there. Although release dates are yet to be announced, each film should make its way back to our shores before too long…
In The Earth (UK, Ben Wheatley, 2021) ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Ben Wheatley, undoubtedly one of Britain’s most interesting directors, has had a career of ups and downs. Highs like Kill List (2011), Sightseers (2012), and Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018) have been offset by bigger budget misfires like High Rise (2015) and Rebecca (2020). So far he’s been at his best when mixing folk horror with tartly observed social satire and interpersonal awkwardness. Well, good news – he’s gone back to basics and done exactly that.
In The Earth is the director’s new film, written under pressure during the UK’s first lockdown of 2020, and filmed speedily under quarantine conditions during the brief gap before the country’s second lockdown. It’s under these pressures that Wheatley has returned to his favourite themes, and delivered another success.
We follow Dr Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) and his guide, Alma (Elloria Torchia) on an arduous multi-day trek to reach a research site deep in an unnamed arboreal forest. Their target: the elusive Dr Wendle, who was closing in a great discovery before dropping completely off the grid.
When their journey is interrupted by a vicious night-time beating, our duo take shelter with mysterious loner Zach (Reese Shearsmith, not a million miles from the sort of grumpy druid Steve Oram played in A Dark Song (Liam Gavin, 2016)). But Zach, and his own interest in Dr Wendle, may not be all that they seem – and what starts as a scientific expedition begins to enter the realm of myth.
From the beginning, Wheatley establishes folk horror themes, with references to a powerful nature spirit that dwells in the forest, and a mysterious plague that’s ravaging the unseen cities of the land. But In The Earth is playful with its genres, and soon adds elements of buddy comedies, torture horror and psychedelic sci-fi to the mix.
Fry, Torchia and Shearsmith are all great, and the movie is at its best when those three are together on screen. Fry’s Dr Lowry is subjected to increasingly nasty physical tribulations, and his despondent responses had me giggling into my sleeve. At points, it’s as if Eeyore had wandered into the set of Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005).
Torchia is compelling throughout – last seen delivering a quality turn in Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019) as the hapless tourist who heads off when told her boyfriend has ‘gone ahead to the station,’ she has more to do here, and shines in the role. If she keeps this up, she’ll end up being one of the leading names in British horror. As for Shearsmith, his ability to portray a menacing oddball remains as strong as ever.
Not everything about In the Earth entirely works: the casting for the mysterious Dr Wendle is intriguingly against type, but to little effect, and the third act aims for transcendence in the vein of Phase IV (Saul Bass, 1974), 2001:A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), or Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018), but delivers somewhat less than those predecessors. For this pandemic back-to-nature horror Wheatley had promised a ‘total mindfuck’; I’d say it delivers something more akin to heavy petting for the brain. It’s certainly heavy on the strobes – good luck watching this if you’ve got epilepsy!
Perhaps, as with any hiking story, the journey itself is the destination. In any case, In The Earth is certainly another entry in Wheatley’s success column. Whether his next venture (The Meg 2) will be the same remains to be seen.
Censor (UK, Prano Bailey-Bond, 2021) ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Prano Bailey-Bond’s directorial debut follows Enid, a BBFC censor in the stuffy Britain of 1985, as she investigates why certain scenes from a banned video nasty remind her so much of her own missing sister. Enid is played with a wonderfully stern-faced, buttoned-down quality by Niamh Algar, alongside a delicious Michael Smiley cameo as a sleazy film director whom she suspects knows more than he’s letting on.
Part Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012), part Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997), this is a fugue-state love letter to early 80s VHS horror that mixes in some ripe portrayals of office sexism, anxiety, loneliness, and guilt. As derealisation and paranoia set in, Censor becomes a gorgeous journey into the darkness, with shot after shot that you’ll just want to take home and frame.
This film makes for a fabulous calling card for its director – funny, stylish, atmospheric, and unsettling. Whatever becomes of Enid, the future of British horror is alive and well in the hands of Prano Bailey-Bond. Cut!
Eight For Silver (UK, Sean Ellis, 2021) ★★★☆☆ (3/5)
At first glance, British director Sean Ellis’s 19th century werewolf flick is a loving homage to all things Hammer. When a tribe of Romany peasants lay claim to a tract of land, pompous local baron Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie – Cloud Atlas (Lana & Lilly Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, 2012), Rogue One (Gareth Edwards, 2016)) decides he’s in no mood to negotiate, and sends in some mercenaries to scare them off – with predictably bloody results. As the last of the Romany dies, she places a curse on him, his children and his community: a curse based on a solid silver set of fanged dentures she clutches in her hands. It’s not long before the local children start sharing dreams about a ghostly scarecrow… and then the killings start.
So far so traditional, although cursed teeth are at least an intriguing addition to werewolf lore, and for a while Eight For Silver makes for relatively slow going. Around the halfway point, though, things really pick up. Ellis wanders even further off-piste with his werewolf lore, portraying the werewolves as almost shark-like, hairless beings, and mixing in body horror imagery – certain images reminded me of The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982) and even Species 3 (Brad Turner, 2004).
Improving as it builds up steam, the film has a third act that’s a grandiose romp. Kelly Reilly gives good value throughout as the beaten-down Baroness, and the misty-moored compositions are gorgeous to look at. Never less than deadpan, Eight for Silver is nonetheless at its best when it’s at its campest and most winkingly referential.