We’re also warned from the start that Olivia’s work focuses on the uncommonly fertile soil in the forest, so we prime ourselves for the possibility that we’re going to get invasive fungus action (the hero even tells us that he had ringworm recently). The film delivers on this promise, though not in the way you might expect. One character paraphrases the much-quoted Isaac Asimov line about how, to members of primitive civilization, high technology is indistinguishable from magic. From that point on, “In the Earth” conflates modern scientific research and theory with ancient rituals intended to communicate with (and appease) Parnag Fegg, an ancient eldritch force that may have summoned all the humans to the woods in the first place. There’s a touch of John Carpenter’s “Prince of Darkness” in the script’s exposition-heavy lore, which postulates that science might find a way to perfect the approximations of scripture, ritual, and spell-casting.
All of this stuff connects rather glancingly, or vaguely. For the most part, that’s good cinema praxis (better to leave the audience guessing or a bit confused than explain every little thing to death), but there are times when it does seem as if Wheatley is fudging things a bit, like a magician who asks “Is this your card?” and then takes it away just fast enough that you can’t be sure. Razzle-dazzle flash-cuts, disorienting jump cuts, and incessant strobe effects amplify dread and confusion in the film’s most intense scenes. There’s a lot of screaming and crying and lot of pain, and it would be unbearable if Wheatley didn’t exhibit such an assured mordant wit. He’s constantly setting up scenes where you know exactly which horrible thing might happen to one of the characters, then making you wait for it, and wait for it, through false starts, digressions, and clumsy mistakes that require a do-over.
Where the film fails as a substantive statement about this or that or the other thing, it succeeds as a visceral exercise in audience torment. Throughout, Wheatley observes a horror movie version of the Chekov principle, where you can assume that the rifle hanging on the wall of a set isn’t just there for atmosphere. This movie features Chekov’s Hatchet, Chekov’s Bow and Arrow, Chekov’s Fungus, and Chekov’s Guitar (used to lull characters to sleep through repetitive phrases that hit them like incantations). Like another low-budget 2021 film, “Lapsis,” it uses nature’s splendors to give a small movie an epic feeling, and its skill at making you squirm suggests that, for all its poker-faced wonderment over the machinations of the universe, Wheatley identifies most strongly with Zach, a grandiloquent sadist who has a captive audience where he wants them and revels in that fact. After a certain point, I stopped finding the ostentatious, close-up brutality funny and started howling at it, and my experiences with some of Wheatley’s other movies (particuarly “KIll List” and “Free Fire“) confirm that not only is he OK with that sort of reaction, he thrives on it.