With The Wind, writer Teresa Sutherland established herself as an expert craftswoman of psychological terror. Marking her debut feature in the director’s chair, Sutherland’s new film, Lovely, Dark, and Deep—which just played at the Fantasia Film Fest—cements the filmmaker as a strong new voice in horror with a creepy story that claws at the mind despite some shortcomings.
The film stars Barbarian’s Georgina Campbell as Lennon, a park ranger who has just gotten a job patrolling the backcountry in Arvores National Park. The area is known as having the largest collection of missing persons in the country…one of whom Lennon knew quite well. Dead-set on finding out what happened to that person all those years ago, she sets out to find her. But the more she searches, the more the past and present collide with frightening horrors until it’s impossible to know what’s real and what isn’t anymore.
Opening with a eerie scene in which a park ranger leaves a note outside his camp that reads, “I owe this land a body,” Sutherland imbues her debut feature with a palpable sense of dread that refuses to leave. Coupling breathtaking landscape shots with a flesh-prickling score from Shida Shahabi that feels as if it’s reaching up out of the dirt, Lovely, Dark, and Deep sets in under the skin like a stubborn tick. It conjures that anxiety you may have gotten from seeing The Shining for the first time, watching as Nicholson drove up that mountain. You immediately become aware that you’re about to see something that will disturb you, and in that sense, Sutherland does not disappoint.
Upon meeting Lennon—Campbell once again driving through a dark night into a terrible situation—it gradually becomes clear that this is a woman hanging on by a thin branch. Anti-social with the other rangers. Distant. Decorating her small, all-white on the inside shack of a “home” for the summer with missing persons posters. She’s a woman that’s been on a decline long before we’re introduced to her. Fellow ranger, Jackson (Nick Blood) mentions rumors circling, to which Lennon responds, “I’m not crazy”. But already in the first few minutes, we as the audience can’t be sure. Campbell, brilliant as always, delivers a nuanced performance that keeps us out as much as it does everyone else. Her cabin might as well be the padded cell of her mind with its white walls. She is an unreliable narrator, and that’s part of what makes Lovely, Dark, and Deep such an intriguing watch.
Sutherland’s film is one about obsession, grief, and the way in which the combination of those two things can drive us away from the world until we don’t know who we are anymore. Lennon may be out in the wilderness searching for a person she loves, but the setting is just as comfortable for her as it is necessary. This is a person who has closed herself off from everything. Knowing that she lost someone in these woods adds an extra uneasy element to the fact that she walks around listening to podcasts about people missing from the area, an unhealthy hobby, to say the least. Lennon says she’s “fine”, yet Sutherland’s incorporation of small spaces in wide shots emphasize the utter loneliness of the character. Lennon has become isolated within herself, roaming around with nothing but dark memories to accompany her.
Once again flexing her psychological horror muscles, Sutherland takes the audience down a disorienting path of nightmarish terror. The deeper Lennon gets into her search, the more frightening the imagery becomes. Lovely, Dark, and Deep is pure madness. Whether its bleeding trees or strange figures crawling on all fours and other sinister things, the film is packed with unspeakable horrors like a trail mix from hell. So much so, that it becomes a bit overwhelming.
Films about psychological descents where reality becomes blurred are never easy. It’s difficult to navigate the audience through a gallery of horrors without losing them along the way. Which, despite Sutherland’s best efforts, is what happens here. What starts strong becomes repetitive at a certain point as Lennon encounters one horrible thing after the next, wandering aimlessly on her way to a convoluted finish. With too few answers and too little driving the character, we start to feel as lost as she is. Perhaps most frustrating is that every time Lovely, Dark, and Deep gets going, it jumps back to a safer reality, like a campfire that sparks but just won’t burn.
Underwhelming script aside, Lovely, Dark, and Deep is a frightening debut from Sutherland that deserves to have her put on the map for horror fans. Creeping camerawork that’s as aesthetically pleasing as it is unnerving, well-timed scares and a relentless dread all show that Sutherland has what it takes to make audiences afraid of their own shadow. This particular yarn around the fire may not be as wholly effective as intended, but it’s nevertheless a curious calling card that has me anxious to see what the filmmaker does next.
Note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film covered here wouldn't exist. I support the members of WGA and SAG-AFTRA.
By Matt Konopka