“People get a bit funny in the woods sometimes.” This benign line uttered in the trailer for Ben Wheatley’s latest doesn’t come remotely close to hinting at the madness that unfolds for its lead characters. Neither do the brief images of the hallucinatory journey that unfolds. In the Earth takes place in the pandemic afflicted present, yet shares commonalities with Wheatley’s period-set A Field in England that would make for a perfect, mind-bending double feature. The first connection between them is actor Reece Shearsmith, but the more important connection is the employment of mind-altering psilocybin.
Psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychedelic compound produced in more than 200 species of fungus. Those magic mushrooms play an integral role in both A Field in England and In the Earth. Hallucinogenic mushrooms drive the plot forward in different and surprising ways. There’s a clear narrative purpose to the madness, and Wheatley tells it with visual flair. He plunges the viewer into the characters’ shoes with a full assault on the senses, thanks to at least one sequence full of stroboscopic effects, flashing lights, and imagery that will leave you questioning your sanity.
In the Earth stars Joey Fry as Dr. Martin Lowery, who heads deep into the woods with park scout guide Alma (Ellora Torchia) for a routine check amidst a pandemic. They encounter a hippie (Shearsmith) living off-grid, where their rocky trip becomes far more precarious and violent as reality ceases to hold meaning.
NEON releases Wheatley’s eco-horror nightmare in theaters on April 16, 2021. In celebration, we explore the genre’s trippiest sequences of all time.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic is a work of cosmic art and a pinnacle in filmmaking. The plot sees humanity on a quest to discover the origins of a mysterious monolith, with the aid of unnerving supercomputer HAL 9000. While HAL steals much of the spotlight, 2001 is also best remembered for its trippy yet ambiguous ending. Dave (Keir Dullea) survives HAL’s slaughter and makes his way to Jupiter, where he’s found a highly advanced species without form. Time then loses meaning as he’s placed in a room and aged within moments. Dave’s mind transcends reality as he’s catapulted through the stars and reborn again; it’s every bit as mind-bending as it sounds, complete with a cosmic laser light extravaganza.
Like 2001, Ken Russell’s sci-fi horror movie uses psychedelic visual sequences to convey higher planes of existence beyond basic human understanding. William Hurt stars as a psychopathologist studying schizophrenia. He soon begins experimenting after developing the hypothesis that our altered states of consciousness are as real and tangible as our waking state. He conducts these experiments through sensory deprivation, which triggers hallucinatory experiences. Years later, the psychopathologist gets introduced to a mind-altering mushroom, further catapulting his altered consciousness. Altered States doesn’t feature just one strange trip, but many.
Lucio Fulci’s second film in his “Gates of Hell” trilogy boasts the most unforgettable ending of the three, thanks to a trippy descent into Hell. In their attempt to escape the onslaught of undead, John and Liza run downstairs and inexplicably find themselves in the hotel’s basement. They move forward until they reach a foggy, supernatural wasteland riddled with bodies that match the landscape. The very same landscape imagery out of a painting seen earlier in the film. The pair are beckoned by disembodied voices whispering their names. They try to flee, only to end up back in the middle of it all until they become blind. No happy endings exist here, just a trippy, unearthly descent into Hell.
Beyond the Black Rainbow
Panos Cosmatos’ debut features striking visuals. Elena is a young and heavily sedated young woman longing to break free from the strange institute holding her prisoner. Mind-altering substances play a central role in the institute’s experiments and even in main antagonist Nyle’s daily stress relief. Major questions driving the plot come late in the film via a flashback sequence. Within it, it’s revealed how Nyle was subjected to an experiment with a black liquid meant to induce transcendence. Instead, it delivered a very, very hellish trip. It’s horror psychedelia at its most unsettling.
Jennifer Lopez stars as a child psychologist hired to treat patients through experimental technology that allows her to enter the mind of those she’s treating. When a serial killer goes comatose, the psychologist gets tasked with scouring the killer’s mind to find the whereabouts of his current victim before it’s too late. Tarsem Singh’s sci-fi horror takes a literal approach to delve into a serial killer’s psychology, and it’s every bit as surreal as it sounds. Singh saves the trippiest moment for the actual transition from reality through the cornea into the killer’s mind, with a mind-bending swirl of imagery as synapses fire off hypnotically.
Gaspar Noé demonstrated a knack for kaleidoscopic visuals with Enter the Void but dialed it up to a deranged degree here. In Climax, a group of dancers succumbs to nightmarish depravity when someone spikes their sangria with LSD. Through neon lighting and continuous long takes, Noé rotates through the sprawling cast as their hallucinatory trips take them to obscenely dark places. It culminates in a twisted finale that sees the group writhing and chanting on the floor, with some resorting to extreme violence. Cast in a red haze, the rhythmic music pulsates as the camera swoops overhead, showing the chaos upside down. It’s an adverse group reaction, stretched out on screen to an uncomfortable degree. The filmmaker works hard to make sure you feel it as much as you witness it.
Jacob (Tim Robbins) attempts to readjust upon returning home from the war while still in mourning over his son’s premature death. When a severe disassociation case sets in, Jacob must decipher reality from bizarre hallucinations while seeking the truth behind his mental state. Director Adrian Lyne introduces several distorted nightmare sequences, full of fast twitching entities amidst settings that stretch normality. The worst of it comes during a party among friends, where Jacob spies his girlfriend on the dance floor, writhing with a winged creature until it kills her. The flashing images against the flashing lights disorient, evoking palpable sympathy for Jacob’s slipping grasp on his sanity.
Narrowing it down to one mind-bending scene in Hausu is next to impossible. Nobuhiko Obayashi’s cult-favorite delivers one of cinema’s most eccentric and cartoonish haunted houses of all time, and that’s a compliment. For the seven schoolgirls that take a trip to visit an aunt, they fall prey to the house’s wacky antics in increasingly trippy ways. While surreal imagery gets employed throughout, it’s hard to beat the film’s climax, which sees the cat portrait spewing enough blood to flood the room as pieces of the house attack the remaining survivors. Nobuhiko Obayashi approaches this as if through a child’s lens; Hausu is full of bright colors, dream logic, and unusual movement.
Dario Argento pushes visual style into hyperdrive, transforming his horror fairy tale of a ballerina discovering her academy is run by witches. With vivid color infused into every frame, grotesque imagery, and a psychedelic, dreamlike quality throughout, it’s a fever dream of a movie. Goblin’s breathy, percussion-heavy score only further exacerbates the otherworldly quality. It’s the stunning, transportive style that makes this Argento film so beloved among fans. The filmmaker weaves that mind-altering quality into the narrative as well, with Suzy discovering she’s been drugged each night through the wine meant to “restore her blood.”
Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s cyberpunk nightmare sees a Metal Fetishist get revenge on the man who killed him by transforming him into a gruesome metal hybrid. It’s an industrial body horror film made trippy through stop motion animation and an expressionistic style. The gruesome, phallic-driven body horror and psychedelic scene transitions only exacerbate the surreal and experimental tone. Tetsuo is more visual metaphor than traditional storytelling, serving to highlight cultural and technological anxieties. Still, it’s a psychotropic trip into the bizarre. Especially its rapid-fire final act sequence.
Ben Wheatley’s hallucinatory In the Earth releases in theaters on April 16.