“There’s no coming to consciousness without pain and discomfort…”
…A heavy helping of truth lies in those words spoken by Dr. Dunnley (Kyra Harper) in writer/director Berkley Brady’s debut feature, Dark Nature, which just had its world premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival. Healing hurts. Therapy is uncomfortable. One of the reasons we enjoy horror is because through entertainment, we’re given a safe space to deal with our monsters. Unfortunately for the cast of Dark Nature, theirs is all too real.
Brady’s film centers around the trauma of women, focused on Joy (Hannah Anderson), who has finally left her abusive ex, Derek (Daniel Arnold), but is now haunted by the sense of his presence. Her best friend Carmen (Madison Walsh) invites Joy to attend a weekend getaway with therapist Dr. Dunnley and fellow patients, reserved Tara (Helen Belay) and war vet, Shaina (Roseanne Supernault). Out in the middle of nowhere, Joy begins to suspect that they are being followed by Derek, but as the group soon comes to learn, there’s something else waiting in the darkness of the trees other than the traumas that follow them.
Through Joy’s relationship with Derek, Dark Nature taps into the horrors which countless women have experienced at the hands of men. The fear in Carmen that Joy is at Derek’s house after some past abuse. Derek getting upset at Joy the moment he walks in, before saying “I’m being an asshole, aren’t I?” Yes, you are, Derek! The uncontrollable rage he unleashes when Joy says no to sex. She walks a tense tightrope with the knowledge that one slip can result in disaster. Her fear is our fear. Her discomfort, our discomfort.
Early on, Dark Nature establishes a key theme, which is the disruption of a woman’s peace by men. Following images in the credits of serene rivers that become full of blood or beautiful deer that turn to skeletons, we meet the rest of the cast, an endearing group of women enhanced by the playful chemistry between Anderson and Walsh. With Jaryl Lim’s long wide shots of picturesque scenery and a spiritual score that feels as if its carrying us away into a dream, Brady creates a feeling of harmony. These women, though some of them strangers, are at peace with each other…only to be shattered by a pair of male hunters who come running into the middle of the road and, guns in hand, invite them to their camp. Hell no! That’s part of what’s so disturbing, though. Even in the middle of the woods, these women can’t find an escape from men.
The short-lived serenity of the trip grows further away in the rearview mirror as Joy finds herself plagued by whispers in the trees that sound a lot like Derek. Sleep offers no escape from her past either, nightmares of her ex and other intense terrors invading her dreams. It’s an ironic name for her character, Joy, because Derek has left her with anything but. The friend Carmen wants back is so scarred that paranoia reigns within her. After finding a bloody camera by an abandoned tent, Joy even accuses Dr. Dunnley of planting it there to scare her as part of the treatment. A half-eaten deer? Well, “it’s nature,” says Dr. Dunnley. Shaina also dismisses Joy’s trauma as if it’s nothing compared to hers. It isn’t necessarily that the other women are belittling Joy’s distress, but rather, Brady is making the point of how common Joy’s story is. All of these women have had hallucinations. All of them have felt that paranoia. Thankfully, Brady doesn’t delve too deep into the paranoid woman trope with the others quickly coming to sense that something is wrong.
This also happens to be where a strong first half devolves into a rather basic monster movie that loses its footing in attempting to balance that with traumatic psychological horror.
Dark Nature introduces some interesting ideas like a spirit that haunts the land and the ability of some thing to pluck the strings of our greatest fears in our dreams ala Freddy Krueger, but can’t see the forest for the trees when it comes to actually developing those concepts. What starts as a strong psychological horror film drenched in paranoia becomes more akin to a below-average creature feature (albeit with some decent practical effects). Suspense is minimal. Characters make every bad choice possible. Kills happen entirely off-screen. That last part is particularly frustrating, since it isn’t that Brady is afraid to paint the screen red. Characters find themselves covered in quite a bit of blood, we just don’t get to see the satisfying part.
The horror at the heart of Dark Nature is a metaphor for the primal ugliness within men, but the film struggles to connect those two in a powerful way. So little attention is paid to what’s hunting these women that it becomes just that, a metaphor without any real substance of its own. The trauma which Joy and the others have experienced is far more frightening than anything in the woods. That may work thematically, but it makes for a poor monster movie.
Dark Nature will disappoint audiences seeking a more traditional creature feature, but is otherwise a well-directed horror film on the psychological front. Closer to something like The Babadook than The Descent, Brady’s film isn’t as interested in its beast as much as it is the symbolic nature of it. Dark Nature isn’t intended to deliver the same old monster movie, but to offer acknowledgement of the pain inflicted on women by the monstrous nature of men. In that, it succeeds at being that safe space to process and confront real life trauma.
“Let the healing begin.”
By Matt Konopka