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Fantasia 2023: Lovely, Dark, and Deep Review

July 23, 2023 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Lovely, Dark, And Deep Image Credit: XYZ Films
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Fantasia 2023: Lovely, Dark, and Deep Review  

Directed by: Teresa Sutherland
Written by: Teresa Sutherland

Georgina Campbell – Lennon
Nick Blood – Jackson
Wai Ching Ho – Zhang
Maria de Sá – Sara Greenberg
Soren Hellerup – Varney
Celia Williams – Mrs. Finley
Mick Greer – Mr. Finley

Image Credit: XYZ Films

Running Time: 97 minutes
Not Rated

The woods are an inherently creepy place. I speak from experience; I was an Eagle Scout who spent a full summer working at a BSA camp and spent my fair share in the forest beside that. The sounds of wildlife, the fact that there’s so much to hide behind, the isolation – it’s not a place you want to get caught at night unprepared, trust me.

Of course, this isn’t exactly new information to most people, especially horror fans. Expanses of darkened forest make fantastic settings for a horror film. Case in point: Lovely, Dark, and Deep. Teresa Sutherland’s latest film, which screened at Fantasia International Film Festival on Sunday, finds its chills in the back country of a national park, playing on long-held reports regarding the disproportionate amount of people who go missing every year in such places.

Lovely, Dark, and Deep starts with a prologue in which a ranger (Soren Hellerup) leaves a note at his station reading, “I owe this land a body” before walking off into the woods. Nine months later, Ranger Lennon (Georgina Campbell), a young park ranger, arrives for her first season in the backcountry of the fictional Arvores National Park in California. Lennon has a reputation for being crazy among her other rangers for unclear reasons. After a friendly-ish encounter with fellow ranger Jackson (Nick Blood), she is dropped off near her station and begins her tour.

It doesn’t take long though to realize that her reasons for being out there aren’t quite that of a paycheck and a love of nature. Lennon is looking for clues of what happened to her younger sister Jenni years ago in that backcountry, something she uses her time to investigate. She listens to podcasts about the number of missing campers in National Parks and various conspiracy theories around them. At night, she is plagued by nightmares of the day Jenni went missing, something she feels great guilt over.

The deeper Lennon delves into the wilderness, the more that strange things seem to happen. Lennon begins to see things that make her suspect that the forest is more than it seems, and Jackson (positioned at the station near hers) isn’t always helpful in dissuading the notion. As she gets closer to the truth, Lennon starts to lose sight of what’s reality and what isn’t, though it’s clear that something malevolent is going on out there.

Horror set in the wild is not a new arena for Sutherland. The writer-director previously wrote 2018’s The Wind, a compelling bit of folk horror about a woman on the American frontier who loses her grip on reality. Lovely, Dark, and Deep shares a notable amount of DNA with that film, both in its isolated setting and its centering on a strong-willed woman who isn’t entirely sure she can trust what she’s seeing.

Both films also take a slow burn approach; in Lovely’s case, Sutherland takes her time setting up the story and allowing the audience to buy into Lennon’s motivations. Campbell, who became a horror star with last year’s Barbarian, grounds the film as Lennon, a character whose standoffish and guarded nature could make it hard to emotionally connect with her. Campbell lets us understand Lennon though and while she rarely goes big with this performance, she lets us see the person under the pain and determination.

The slow build of this film may be a bit too slow for some horror fans. There are plenty of gorgeous shots of the wilderness, and Sutherland makes good use of the dark and the sounds of the forest to keep the thread of suspense rolling on. It does languish a bit too long in the first act though, until the discovery of a missing woman kicks the action up a notch.

And when it does kick in, it goes very hard. There are strong elements of cosmic horror here as things get surreal, and Sutherland navigates that tricky subgenre fairly well even if a couple of moments feel too telegraphed or on the nose. Campbell’s performance is endearing enough that when Lennon starts to lose her grip, we feel for her and are along for the ride even if the missing sister angle never really has much mystery to it for the viewer.

While this is primarily Campbell’s film in terms of the cast, the supporting actors deliver nicely. Nick Blood and Wai Ching Ho are playing characters the audience is intended to find suspect, and they lean into that just enough without going over the top. And Celia Williams and Mick Greer have a spotlight moment as the Finleys, an elderly couple Lennon knows who are taking a trip into the backcountry.

Sutherland’s film invokes the memory of several other films in the folk horror and cosmic horror realms in recent years. There are aesthetic similarities to films like The Ritual and The Outwaters. Those films hit a little bit harder in their themes, narrative twists, and greater willingness to get weird. That said, Lovely is keeps itself pushing down the path towards the inevitable conclusion through its performances and use of its environment – not to mention a suitably creepy score from Shida Shahabi that brings the treetops looming close enough that you might want to keep to the suburbs for a while.

The Fantasia International Film Festival takes place in Montreal from July 20th through August 9th

The final score: review Average
The 411
Teresa Sutherland's Lovely, Dark, and Deep is a well-made film on the borders of folk and cosmic horror that takes a bit too long to get going, but once it gets there it goes wild. Georgina Campbell adds to her resume of solid horror performances and Sutherland makes ample use of the isolated locale to keep things entertaining enough through the final moments.