Psychological horror meets supernatural thriller in Teresa Sutherland’s debut feature
In the wide expanse of Teresa Sutherland’s directorial debut, the psychological horror Lovely, Dark and Deep, darkness lurks in the depths of the forest, and within those subjected to its terror. Sutherland, perhaps best known for her work as a staff writer on the Netflix horror serial Midnight Mass, offers a dual pronged approach as she both writes and directs here. Set in a Canadian national park, our protagonist, as played by Georgina Campbell, is Lennon, a back-country ranger starting a new post. But for several years, rangers and members of the public have been mysteriously vanishing in the park. And, in her isolation, both Lennon and the woods begin to unravel…
A standard horror setup, then. But as the film goes on, intrigue is created through its main character. Lennon is standoffish, clearly uncomfortable with others – yet in a glance, a brief touch of an engraved name, it is clear she desires connection. It’s also clear that there is something unresolved, something murky, in her past, something she must face head on while in this isolated place. Campbell’s performance is one of the key strengths of this film. She inhabits the character completely – the audience understands who Lennon is simply through observing her internal processes. This is a character well realised and understood by both the writer-director and the actor portraying her.
Another strength of the film is its cinematography. Filmed in Portugal, the forest landscape is beautiful and lush, in hues of warm green and gold to contrast with the black terror of the night. Yet, through the cinematography of the film, sometimes even the day is frightening, as suggested through usage of wide angles and sickening, canted shots. At times, this film conveys an incredible sense of atmosphere. Cinematographer Rui Poças conveys nature as dangerous, isolating, but bewitching – a cosmic dappled terror in and of itself, despite any monsters it may hide. This idea, of horror in the daytime, in the beauty of nature, is reminiscent of the most recent and famous example of this trend – Ari Aster’s Midsommar – which also shares themes of psychological horror, and community with Sutherland’s film. But, where Midsommar’s psychological and horror narrative is airtight, where Aster knows when and how to use unsettling imagery for maximum effect, Lovely, Dark and Deep suffers in its middle act through a combination of repetition, slow pacing, and limited payoff. There are only so many times something unseen roving about in the dark, a character acting strangely, or unsettling framing can be frightening or compelling.
The film gains some momentum nearer the end, where Lennon must face her trauma hinted at throughout the whole film. After the cycle of horror suspense and revelation, the audience are keen to get into the meat of what exactly makes Lennon, the most intriguing and well thought out part of this film, tick. But even here, this exploration fell flat, felt unfinished. It lacked the depth and subtlety required for a character as initially interesting and well-acted as Lennon. This is also reflected in the supernatural plotline, the explanation as to why exactly so many people have been going missing in the park – which, frankly, just does not make sense.There’s nothing wrong with a slow burner, and films don’t have to make sense, but they must be interesting to follow, or at least build up to a satisfying conclusion. Instead, this feels more like a collection of vaguely connected ‘creepy’ and ‘deep’ ideas that, when it comes down to it, don’t amount to much. And the ending of the film, while certainly surprising and one of its stronger moments, feels unsatisfying with the lack of true explanation, or even exploration of its supernatural aspects. Though its disjointed, vague aspects interestingly reflect the impact of trauma and of time passing in isolation, Lovely, Dark and Deep just can’t quite grasp some of the deeper stuff it grapples with. Still, it provides a beautiful, atmospheric, and well-acted experience, and is ultimately worth a watch, particularly if the themes or setting intrigue the individual viewer.