We are also warned early on that Olivia’s work is focused on the exceptionally fertile forest soil, so we brace ourselves for the possibility that we get invasive fungal action (the hero even tells us that he had the ringworm recently). The movie keeps that promise, but not in the way you might expect. One character restates the famous observation that, for members of primitive civilizations, high technology is indistinguishable from magic.
From there, “In the Earth” combines modern scientific research and theory with ancient rituals meant to communicate with (and appease) Parnag Fegg, an ancient eldritch force who may have summoned all humans into the wood in the first place. There is a touch of John Carpenter’s “Prince of Darkness” in the heavy tradition of script exposure, which posits that science could eventually find a way to perfect approximations of scriptures, rituals, and spells.
All of this stuff connects rather at a glance, or loosely. For the most part, this is good filmmaking practice (better to leave the audience guessing or a little confused than explaining every little thing to death), but there are still times when it seems like Wheatley is faking things, like a magician who asks “Is this your card?” and then removes it just fast enough that you can’t be sure. Dazzling flash cuts, disorienting jump cuts, and relentless strobe effects amplify the fear and confusion in the film’s most intense scenes. There is a lot of screaming and crying and a lot of pain, and it would all be unbearable if Wheatley didn’t show such a biting mind. It constantly sets up scenes where you know exactly what horrible thing could happen to one of the characters, and then forces you to wait and wait for it, through false starts, digressions and awkward mistakes that require an overhaul. And when it finally happens: Wow.
Where the film fails as a substantive statement about this or that or the other, it succeeds as a visceral exercise in audience torment. Throughout, Wheatley observes a horror film version of Chekhov’s Principle, where you can assume that the gun hanging on the wall of a set isn’t just there for the atmosphere. This film features Chekhov’s ax, Chekhov’s bow and arrow, Chekhov’s mushroom, and Chekhov’s guitar (used to lull characters to sleep through repetitive phrases that strike them like incantations). Like another low-budget 2021 film, “Lapsis,” it uses the splendours of nature to give a small movie an epic feel, and its wiggling skill suggests that despite all its wonder at poker on the machinations of the universe, Wheatley identifies most strongly with Zach, a bombastic sadist who has a captive audience where they want them and rejoices in the fact. After a while I stopped finding ostentatious close-up brutality funny and started yelling at it, and my experiences with some of Wheatley’s other films (especially “Kill List” and “Free Fire”) confirm that not only is he okay with this kind of reaction, he feeds on it.