Ecological horror is hot right now. Lovely, Dark, And Deep takes a more supernatural and, quite frankly, more unnerving perspective on the concept of something more powerful than humans. Nature is a being that both gives and destroys life. The woods can be a wonderful, calming place to reflect and ground ourselves. It can also be a disorienting nightmare of endless trees and rocks. It is the kind of place that can overwhelm even the most seasoned explorers. In Teresa Sutherland’s Lovely, Dark, and Deep, premiering at Fantasia International Film Fest 2023, there is something inscrutable out there that is powerful, awe-inspiring, and monstrous. It’s in these untouched spaces that our insignificance is felt. We only think we are at the top of the food chain. In the forest, we lose our preconceived notions and are stripped bare. Unfortunately, we can lose more than just our minds.
First-time director Sutherland who also wrote Lovely, Dark, and Deep, delivers a thoroughly unsettling experience. It is the kind of movie that captures that mysterious fear of the pristine forest. Anyone who has ever spent any time in the woods knows the deeper you go, the more at peace and the more strange you can feel. It’s like the depths of the ocean in its secrets and span. Sutherland’s movie capitalizes on this wonder and this unknowable, almost Lovecraftian terror of one of the few untamed places on Earth.
Georgina Campbell(Bird Box Barcelona and Barbarian) is a park ranger reporting for duty in the isolated backcountry. It’s clear from the beginning she is troubled. She is vulnerable to the spirit of the woods, which appears as shadows, hisses, and deer that appear and disappear seemingly out of thin air.
A radio show hums along, worrying about the countless people who have gone missing without a trace in these woods. Most leave nothing but a shoe behind and are never seen again. They are there one moment and gone the next. It’s the kind of conspiracy show that everyone has heard and largely written off as the ramblings of a consumer-driven obsession, but it is ominous as the woods close in around Lennon(Campbell).
Lennon has been hired to replace another ranger that we saw wonder off after taping a handwritten sign into place. The sign read, “I owe the woods a body.” This position hardly seems like a good fit for someone so obviously lost herself. She chews on her nails until they bleed distractedly and incessantly. It is a habit that circles back around later in an especially graphic and horrific scene that feels like it grew from the same genetic soil as Black Swan’s most affecting body horror scenes.
There are rumors about Lennon. She is troubled and has a past that bothers some. Regardless, day after day, she searches and maps and studies. Deep into her time in the woods, a man pounds on her door late at night, panicked and bloody. He begs for help and runs before she can put on her shoes. She is forced to give chase in bare feet when he explains his friend is missing and he isn’t sure what happened or what is real anymore. The rangers descend on her camp to walk the grid and find the missing woman. Lennon is ordered to stay and heal her feet but disobeys and heavily pays the price.
It’s a beautifully shot and edited film that makes the most of the magesty of the setting. Cinematographer Rui Pocas makes the common unnerving while still highlighting the magesty. It is easy to believe the strange story that unfolds. It feels like a dangerous and wild place filled with things we can’t possibly understand and shouldn’t try to. Every dizzying shot of the trees feels like we have become lost in an alien land, alone, vulnerable, and very confused. Sutherland, who wrote IFC’s The Wind, has the same odd mix of beauty and danger. Nature comes alive in a way that feels both sinister and ancient.
A throbbing soundtrack rattles your bones as it drones and booms inside your head, rattling your teeth. Everything is communicating a greater truth in the woods. The trees rasp and flex their muscles as the wind tears at them. Animals tred softly to avoid drawing attention to themselves. The patter of soft paws, the whine of the breeze, the hum of insects, and the roar of a storm are all heard and felt in the thundering score by Shida Shahabi.
Almost the entirety of this film is on Campbell’s lovely shoulders. Peripheral characters come and go, usually to deliver something decidedly nasty to our crumbling sense of reality. She, along with the looming impossibly strange trees, are the constants. Every breath, sigh, and troubled glance conveys a wealth of emotion. She is stunning in her fragility. Lennon has joined the park service to pay a debt. It is not one she owes, yet she is plagued by guilt over losing her little sister when they were very young. Her sister Jenny went missing and was never found. Working as a ranger is her way of atoning.
The rangers spend 90 days alone in the backcountry, searching and mapping the woods. She is there to detail and provide assistance to wayward hikers. However, the more time she spends there, the harder it is to ground herself in reality. In the same way that In The Earth used our hubris against us, Lovely Dark, and Deep uses our ignorance. Visual cues which should provide reference only confuse things. Ominous warnings go unheeded because it’s too terrible to comprehend.
Lovely, Dark, and Deep is mesmerizing and hypnotic. It’s the kind of film that burrows into your mind and won’t let go—the past haunts from the shadows, and the present taunts with fear. Echoes of trauma repeat on an endless loop of pain and regret until even reality bends to its will. It reminds us how small we are. The film is brimming with the kinds of universal truths we desperately hope aren’t real.
It also makes you think twice about leaving anything but footprints and taking nothing but memories and killing nothing but time. Lovely, Dark, And Deep builds a mythos similar to Netlfix’s The Ritual around the woods and things we can’t even imagine that live there. The forest gives as much as it takes. The mysticism of the place comes through in every sigh of the wind, every woosh of leaves, and the click of bare branches on your skin. Sutherland’s film is a beautifully shot reminder of our place in the world and how quickly we can lose it.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.