Lovely, Dark, and Deep (2023) Review – Fantasia
Taking its title from a well-known line from Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Lovely, Dark, and Deep is the directorial debut from Teresa Sutherland known for writing The Wind and her work as one of the writers of Netflix’s Midnight Mass.
The film opens with an unseen supervisor checking the status of the park’s rangers. One doesn’t respond to numerous requests. We see why, he’s busy posting a note that reads “I owe this land a body”. Cue some creepy camera work and sounds leading into the credits.
Ranger Lennon (Georgina Campbell, Barbarian, Bird Box: Barcelona) has been assigned to replace the missing man. It’s an assignment she not only asked for but has been trying to get for a while. Not just because the idea of ninety days so far in the backcountry she has to be taken there by helicopter with no cell reception or electricity sounds appealing.
As might be expected in a film directed by someone who wrote a film about madness induced by the sound of the wind, the audio portion of Lovely, Dark, and Deep makes its presence known early. Various sounds of the forest are isolated and amplified to good effect. The other sound is less natural, the podcasts Lennon listens to about mysterious disappearances in National Parks, especially this one.
Sutherland lets us know something is wrong in these woods, dropping clues here and there as to what. We learn various things such as the other rangers think she’s crazy, and her sister vanished in these woods when they were kids. It’s something she’s blamed herself for ever since, feeling if she hadn’t let go of her hand, she would still be alive.
But how all of this ties together with the disappearance of her predecessor, the disappearances discussed on the podcast, and the current disappearance of a hiker Sara Greenberg (Maria de Sá, The Infernal Machine, Sushi Man) isn’t clear. Or, why Ranger Jackson (Nick Blood, X Moor, The Offering) goes as far as warning Lennon not to try and find her. Until Sarah turns up, bloody but alive, and asks if Lennon is real.
As with most things I write, this story is based in reality – in this case the real-life conspiracy theories surrounding the unusually high number of unsolved missing person cases that happen in national parks and forests. Look it up, if you don’t feel like sleeping tonight. Needless to say, there are lots of theories. This is mine.Teresa Sutherland, writer/director Lovely, Dark, and Deep
Lovely, Dark, and Deep is a disturbing piece of contemporary American folk horror. One that works quietly, without much in the way of gore or overt jump scares. It works via things like the mysterious black deer that repeatedly appears from nowhere and just as quickly disappears. A scene where Lennon’s search for Sarah blends with her search for her sister. Or people having responses that are 180 degrees off from what they should be.
It goes from weird to unsettling to disturbing as it becomes clear that nothing is as it’s supposed to be and the only people who are on the level may be the podcasters. Or is it all a twisted hallucination, a psychotic break shaped by those podcasts and fuelled by years of collected guilt? Either way, Sutherland, aided by a Tour de Force performance from Campbell, had me buying into the kind of theories I laugh at when I see someone posting them to Twitter or Facebook.
Something of a cross between Body at Brighton Rock and The Axiom but without that film’s monsters, Lovely, Dark, and Deep is a nightmarish film that made me glad I moved to the prairies, because if I’d had to drive home through the dark New York woods after seeing it I may well have shat myself.
Lovely, Dark, and Deep makes its world premiere on July 23rd at 9:40 PM as part of this year’s Fantasia Film Festival. If you miss the premiere, there’s also a second showing on July 25th at 4:15 PM.