You can keep your haunted houses, bloody abattoirs, and abandoned asylums. For my money, and my nightmares, the scariest place on the planet is a dense forest on a moonless night. Noises in the woods are exponentially more frightening than anywhere else as sounds echo and linger in the darkness. Anything could be out there, human, animal, other… and some of the scariest movies in the horror genre have used this eternal truth to their benefit. From The Blair Witch Project (1999) to Willow Creek (2013) to a sadly underseen Canadian chiller called The Interior (2015), filmmakers know that forests are fucking terrifying — filmmakers like those behind Lovely, Dark, and Deep.
Lennon (Georgina Campbell) is a ranger whose latest assignment has been a long time coming. She’s landed a gig watching over Arvorus National Park, the same park where her younger sister went missing when they were children. Like the other rangers, Lennon is assigned her own patch of the park that she’ll monitor with daily walks, overnight excursions, and missing person emergencies when necessary. It’s that last bit she’s most interested in as her sister’s disappearance still haunts her dreams, and when a young woman goes missing she sees an opportunity to dig into the forest’s secrets. All is not as it seems, though, and while some people get lost through perfectly normal circumstances, others… don’t.
Writer/director Teresa Sutherland knows that her feature debut has two lead stars — Campbell, and the woods themselves — and Lovely, Dark, and Deep is a showcase for both as one and/or the other occupy every frame. They pull you into the nightmare, from the atmospheric unease of the forest to the growing sense that something is very, very wrong out there (and maybe in Lennon’s mind too). Sutherland was a staff writer on Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass (2019) and wrote 2018’s The Wind, another film about a woman squaring off against nature and the demons within, and her debut delivers an increasingly unnerving tale that tightens its grip with mystery, revelation, and genuine chills.
To say to much more about the script’s plot would be a disservice to first-time viewers as the slow burn takes hold early, occasionally pops with pure terror, and goes out with a satisfying punch to the gut. The conceit behind the forest’s mystery become evident enough (though some may disagree), but Sutherland wants you to piece things together alongside Lennon ensuring the conclusion lands with the appropriate effect. It’s emotional and intriguing, the kind of narrative that worms into your head as Lennon listens to podcasts talking about the high number of disappearances in national parks, the curious details involving rock formations, the grim idea that some people owe the land a body, and more.
That’s not to suggest that Lovely, Dark, and Deep — a title taken from the end of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1923) — exists wholly as slow burn mind fuck. Sutherland and cinematographer Rui Poças find frightening power in the darkness and in the noises big and small that arise from every direction, and they also deliver some terrifyingly creepy beats amid the trees. One sequence sees Lennon in her tent at night as someone or something moves about outside, and it’s as creepy as it comes, especially if you’ve even been camping.
While the forest’s alternating beauty and horror captures the eye and imagination, Campbell’s performance offers up the beating heart of Lovely, Dark, and Deep. Guilt and grief meet fear and curiosity, and we can’t help but feel the pain that fuels her journey. The actor’s made quite a play into genre fare recently with last year’s excellent Barbarian and this year’s solid enough Bird Box Barcelona, and she’s quickly become a welcome presence as our guide through these varied cinematic nightmares.
The idea that people aren’t meant to explore every nook and cranny, that maybe we’re just not welcome “where it still gets dark, where you can still see the stars,” is the intriguing and unsettling concept at play in Lovely, Dark, and Deep. Sutherland’s tale isn’t some simple spookfest as it instead wants you thinking about its themes both now and the next time you find yourself in the woods. And you will, you most definitely will.
Related Topics: Fantasia Film Festival