LOVELY, DARK AND DEEP
Directed by Teresa Sutherland
The film I was most looking forward to at this year’s Halloween FrightFest. Lovely, Dark and Deep is the directorial debut for Teresa Sutherland – who previously wrote on Midnight Mass and did the 2018’s The Wind. Like those, it’s a carefully paced, mood-driven supernatural horror in an excellent location. In this case, it’s the fictional Arvores National Park where ranger Lennon, a young woman with a mysterious backing story, has recently taken up a post. It’s a park with a long history of disappearances, particularly kids and other eerie phenomena.
From the get-go, you know what sort of horror this will be. We got a sinister cold opener, the quote “into the forest I go, to lose my mind, and find my soul,” and upside-down ariel views: a mindfuck flick that may or may not be about a mental breakdown. A real strength of the film is in quickly establishing the sort of otherworldly atmosphere where anything can happen. The national park is a thing of picturesque beauty by day, but by night, it’s a confusing dreamscape of sounds and shadows. As such, it’s inspired numerous conspiracy theories – over a montage of the day giving way to night, we hear numerous talking heads wondering what the ranges do and don’t know. Potentially, this could be a bit goofy – like a bad take on The X Files – but Sutherland sells it seamlessly, acknowledging both the situation’s absurdity and its terror.
On the point, there aren’t many horror scenes in this, though the few we get land. The sense of isolation gained earlier gives Lennon some much-needed vulnerability, and the brief bumps in the night show Sutherland knows the genre well. And while I don’t think Lovely, Dark And Deep quite achieves the intensity it could, I suspect she wants to disorient us more than scare us. True to this ethos, she messes with the narrative, walking us down several false paths into the darkness. And while the movie’s slow burn may put some people off, its often ponderous nature means we better understand the park’s mythos or at least get a feel for it. Far from society, yet strangely close to the cosmos, the film lives and dies by how immersed we are in the park. For me, the pairing of authentic survivalist drama and surrealism is judged well, even if in contrast to the title we seem to be only seeing the surface. It helps in the increasingly strange second half that delivers a lot of fantastic images, even if they occasionally seem to be disjointed or unconnected.
If there’s a weakness, it’s that her time spent alone or in confusion means Lennon is given less psychological depth than I think is needed for this type of film to work. We have some answers, and Georgina Campbell, who was in last year’s excellent Barbarian, does another outstanding performance. Moreover, the perspective scenes are quite innovative (even if the places they end up are less striking than the forest itself). Yet everything seems to return to the same sad event in her past. My lack of investment meant I was impressed by the cinematography but rarely emotionally invested in the outcome. As such, a scene I suspect is intended to be watched like an emotional catharsis seemed a damp anticlimax. Still, Lovely, Dark And Deep is more interested in the woods than the trees, and the holistic experience is a rewarding one. Unlike the classic Forst poem, from which it takes its name, I do not think this will be remembered decades later. Yet, for its duration, it’s a haunting, mesmerising trip to the woods.