Fans of The Descent and The Ritual will probably vibe with Berkley Brady’s new horror film Dark Nature, which features lots of practical effects and stunt work in service of a good, though unfocused, story.
Joy (Hannah Emily Anderson) is six months removed from a violent, abusive relationship with her ex Derek (Daniel Smith Arnold) and goes on an unusual therapy excursion into the Rockies with famed “mind queen” Dr Dunnley (Kyra Harper), her friends Carmen (Madison Walsh), Tara (Helen Belay) and ex-soldier Shaina (Roseanne Supernault). It’s clear that Joy isn’t the only one dealing with trauma, though the backstories of Tara and Carmen are curiously unexplored beyond Tara’s self-harm. Similarly, it’s not really clear what Dr Dunnley is trying to accomplish, and how. It’s an odd choice for a movie so centred on trauma and the various ways of dealing with it.
When you’re shooting in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, you can afford to let the natural setting and beauty do a lot of your production’s heavy lifting, and that’s very much the case in Dark Nature. Set just about anything against that backdrop and the environment seems to conform around it. In this case, pursuits through the woods, rivers, and rocks feel labyrinthine and unforgiving. Much of the horror here happens in broad daylight and allows the splendour and the harshness of the Rockies do the talking.
At the outset, it seems that Dark Nature is going in a direction similar to Alex Garland’s Men, but it doesn’t exactly play out that way even though there might be a deeper vein to mine from that angle. Certainly, the abuse and terrifying interaction between Joy and Derek at the beginning of Dark Nature is one of the more harrowing depictions I’ve seen, and the escalation of it feels authentic while disorienting. It doesn’t quite mesh with the more traditional ‘spooky thing in the woods’ genre exercise that it turns into, though.
Instead, the antagonist here is a more traditional, albeit horrifying monster that’s akin to Swamp Thing. It works due to it’s capacity for sheer brutality, but if it’s intended to be an embodiment of past trauma, it falls a bit short to me. To me, it plays like Brady’s not confident enough in telling a story about abuse and the ways in which we grapple with the past, and falls into ‘safe’ territory of depicting a literal monster. I appreciate that there is a monster, though, in the sense that I’m always happy to see some fun practical effects. But if the monster is, in fact, a metaphor for the dark past of our protagonists, it feels like falling back on tired and potentially problematic tropes of trauma manifesting things out of thin air.
Dark Nature comes to select theaters on May 19, 2023 and to VOD on May 23, 2023 from Epic Pictures and DREAD.