January 29, 2021

SHOWBUZZDAILY Virtual Sundance Reviews: “In the Earth” & “Knocking”


IN THE EARTH (Neon):  After his foray into more commercial cinema with the Netflix remake of Rebecca that didn’t go very well, Ben Wheatley has returned to the stranger and more experimental style of his earlier films like Kill List and High Rise with In the Earth.  It’s not an easy movie to describe in detail, both because it begins as one kind of horror thriller and changes to another, and also because what’s going on becomes progressively less clear as things proceed.  (But pay attention when a character makes a casual mention of pagan idolatry early on.)  The story starts as a tale not dissimilar to Annihilation, with an additional topical touch.  Martin (Joel Fry) is a scientist sent in the midst of a very familiar looking pandemic to make contact deep in the heart of an enveloping forest with his colleague Dr. Wendle (Hayley Squires), with whom he also has a personal connection.  He and his guide Alma (Ellora Torchia) make a journey through nature that becomes increasingly overwhelming, until it’s unclear whether they should hold the greater fear for menaces human or not.  Wheatley orchestrates things to become more and more hallucinatory and surreal, building a disturbing tone with committed performances from the cast; abrupt, eventually strobe-like editing that he handles himself; as well as a harrowing score by Clint Mansell and a remarkable sound design.  Even if the specifics of the story aren’t entirely clear, Wheatley, who wrote and directed the film after the COVID lockdown began, isn’t just intent on conveying suspense and gore (although there are plenty of both) but wants to makes some very current points about the risks of social isolation, and the rejection of science for dangerous superstitions.  In the Earth melds real and imagined horrors in a way that’s hard to shake.

KNOCKING:  A small (78-minute), straightforward Swedish psychological thriller that’s a scaled-down version of recent genre exercises like Girl On the Train and Woman In the Window, with a heavy portion of Repulsion on top.  The woman here is Molly (Cecelia Milocco), who’s no sooner released from a stay in a mental hospital and moved into a new apartment than she begins to hear, well, a knocking that seems to be coming from the apartment directly above and that she eventually determines is signalling her in morse code.  No one, of course, believes her, and no one else in the building hears anything.  As Molly becomes more desperate and obsessed, the film’s one and only question is whether she’s on the trail of a victim of violence, or whether she’s self-destructively deluded.  In her scripted feature debut, director Frika Kempff (working from a script by Emma Brostrom, based on a novel by Johan Theorin) keeps the focus entirely on Molly, and tries to wrap the narrative tightly, although there just isn’t much substance here, as compared, say, to this year’s somewhat similar Sundance horror entry Censor.  Apart from a few show-offy shots fastening the camera on Molly as she moves through space (think of the person on your Zoom call who keeps talking while walking their laptop through their house), the filmmaking is spare, and while Milocco is able to sustain one’s attention, Molly isn’t a character with much nuance.  The rushed conclusion of the film is particularly unsatisfying, a grab at ambiguity that feels like it could have been added in post.  Knocking isn’t apt to| convince viewers to open their collective door.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."