In Ben Wheatley’s The Earth, horror takes place in fungi

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The way we segment history can be divided into two eras: before the advent of penicillin and after – or, in other words, pre-antibiotics and post-antibiotics.

Penicillin, the first antibiotic discovered in 1928 by Scottish microbiologist Alexander Fleming, who discovered that the juices from the Penicillium fungi were able to destroy harmful bacteria. Medicine has forever transformed, and to this day, penicillin is prescribed for everything from lung infections to sexually transmitted diseases. This extraordinary elixir was certainly not produced by fungi by accident In some respects fungi work more like humans and animals than with plants. One of the reasons we get so many antibiotics from fungi is because we are more closely related to them than any other kingdom of organisms, according to a TED Talk from 2008 by the famous American mycologist Paul Stamets.

These properties of fungi – which are used for antibiotics and antiviral drugs – weigh heavily on the mind as the world is ravaged by a pandemic. Now that more than a year has passed since COVID-19 was first reported, the public debate, concern and general collective imagination has become has shifted from focusing on the virus itself to now being more interested in its deterrent: the vaccine.

So then Ben Wheatley’s latest movie In the earth opens up to a view known to all of us – that of social distancing, quarantine and protective gear – we can only imagine the mission taking Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) deep into an English forest as part of a project that studies fungi is in finding a vaccine. The words “COVID-19” are never actually uttered in the movie, but there’s no question what the inspiration was for Wheatley’s latest effort, especially since it was filmed in the summer of 2020.

But Martin and associate park explorer Alma (Ellora Torchia) don’t venture into the dense English forest in search of a cure. Instead, they are on a mission to reach a research center where Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires) tries to understand the fungal network that connects the trees and plants in every forest and field around the world. By better understanding this network, they can improve yields, explains Martin.

You see, fungi ‘ability to facilitate antibiotics isn’t their only miracle. In fact, their most compelling trait is not something visible in the mushrooms and fungi that thrive above ground. It is beneath the surface, underground: a complex web of fungal strands that connect in a so-called ‘mycorrhizal network’, often called the ‘Wood Wide Web’, that connects the roots of different types of plants in a particular plain. .

Jean-Marc Moncalvo, a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum and a professor in the ecology department at the University of Toronto, explains The edge that the white filaments of fungi that grow underground – called “mycelium” – form symbiotic relationships with the roots of plants, effectively connecting different species in a forest or field through a vast, sprawling web. The communication that takes place within the fungi is difficult to decipher, but mycologists have ideas about what the plants ‘say’ to each other. Many of these interactions are intended to warn of danger. “If there’s an infection in a plant,” says Moncalvo, “different [unaffected] plants react. These appear to be ‘volatile chemicals’ at work, such as how ants communicate via pheromones. ”

Moncalvo goes on to explain that this web does more than just spread caution. “This idea of ​​network and the World Wide Web is not only communication of information, it is also the translocation of nutrients between individual plants in the forest. Eighty percent of land plants are associated with mycelium in their root system. What the plant gains is access to more water and nutrients, what the fungi get from this exchange is sugar. He compares this network to a brain: a complex tangle of neurons that connect and interact with each other for different purposes and functions.

And as Dr. Wendle buries deep in a thicket to study this mode of underground communication, Martin, Alma and the outside world grapple with what it means to communicate in an environment that abruptly turns into quarantine and social detachment. The beginning of Martin and Alma’s journey through the forest is filled with awkward silences: we have to wonder if Martin’s dry speech is due to his previous isolation or simply a trait. Only when Martin and Alma run into Zach (Reece Shearsmith) a day after their trip In the earth takes on the Lovecraftian tone – gloomy score, blood, existential confrontations and all – that defines horror for the rest of the film.

Zach lives in a tented canopy off the net and is obsessed with a different kind of communication: contacting Parnag Fegg, a folk tale that talks about a ghost living in the woods. His pursuit is mystical. There’s a kind of funny irony in a man who isolates himself deep in a forest – the secrets of whose plants and fungi scientists have yet to crack – just to focus on the esoteric. Martin and Alma eventually reach out to Dr. Wendle, but the reasoning we expected to separate the scientific and the folklore is blurred by Wheatley in a psychedelic way, a disorientation akin to shroom ingestion (which, rest assured, in the movie).

Wheatley’s story manages to be a horror entry that simultaneously acknowledges both the mysteries of the natural world and our connection to it. However, when we notice the connection between man and earth, it is necessary to recognize that indigenous people have long been familiar with the properties of fungi, as described in the brilliant books by Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer. Collect moss and Sweetgrass braids.

In the earth
Photo: Neon

In the film, two different stories lure the four characters into the forest: one of fungi that weave the roots of beech, ash and cedar trees together to communicate, and one of the spirit of the forest, one Blair Witch-like folk tale. But what makes In the earth what is really remarkable is that Wheatley does not label these two systems, which historically have been viewed as opposites, as incongruous. Wheatley’s thesis is that scientific discoveries do not need to be sterilized based on the whims and emotions of man. It is a symbiotic relationship that can serve as an allegory for the ways fungi and plants merge into an environment.

“You have to see nature and organisms as an interconnected system,” says Moncalvo. “We tend to say that the unit is the species – there are the fungi, the plants, the animals – but we have to understand that the ecosystem is the unit.” By putting this paradigm on Wheatley’s film, the units of man – emotion and reason – must also be seen as informing each other.

This idea of ​​connectivity has emerged within horror film as both a visual motif and a narrative starting point. In Alex Garland’s 2018 sci-fi horror film Destruction, based on Jeff VanderMeer’s book of the same name, a group of scientists venture into a zone occupied by an anomaly called ‘Shimmer’. The most haunting images of the film are those of skeletons of scientists who lost their lives on previous expeditions and spring up with vines, mosses and flowers. Whatever this “Shimmer” is, it merges the molecular makeup of all living things, irrespective of what kingdom the being belongs to. A similar tableau characterizes a mysterious entity in it Apostle, a horror film directed by Gareth Evans and also released in 2018, where people have become entangled in the roots of an island and serve as its conservationists.

And it’s something that hasn’t escaped the grip of horror television either: in NBC’s first season Hannibal, the second installment, entitled “Amuse-Bouche,” focuses on a pharmacist burying people alive to facilitate the growth of fungi on their bodies. The pharmacist, Eldon Stammets, is named after the aforementioned mycologist, who sees Mancolvo as a leading and important voice in the study of mycorrhizae.

After debuting at the Sundance Film Festival last January, In the earth was received lukewarm, and for an understandable reason: fans expecting a traditional horror movie wouldn’t find one here. Aside from a few moments of classic physical horror, the film’s story and visuals evade the genre’s usual tropes. But In the earth is a good indicator of the direction horror is moving: meditative probes to humanity’s place in the natural world. While the horror films that have characterized the past decades have primarily dealt with the supernatural disconnected from ecology – ghosts haunting homes, people or heirlooms – writers and directors have gradually shifted the sensibilities of the genre to account for the fungi and plants that make up the sustain the earth. life.

In the earth – with its psychedelic interludes of plant images, edited in a way that resembles the hectic pace of a Guy Maddin film, and its haunting synth score composed by Clint Mansell – is a challenging but valuable film. One that simultaneously questions and proclaims man’s connection with the earth and science with mysticism.

In the earth is currently playing in theaters and will be available digitally on May 7.