Being a backcountry ranger is a tough job. When hikers get lost in the dense forest of a national park, those rangers stop whatever they’re doing to join the search and rescue efforts. Those searches aren’t always successful, leaving some people forever lost to the woods. That scenario seems like it would make a terrific action movie, but there’s more to the story than that. Teresa Sutherland’s Lovely, Dark, and Deep takes that situation and turns it into an effective and trippy horror movie.
Ranger Lennon (Georgina Campbell, Barbarian) has landed a gig at a ranger station deep in the Arvores National Park. There’s no electricity out there, nor is there cell service. Her closest neighbor is Ranger Jackson (Nick Blood, Andor), a scruffy guy who loves being away from society. Lennon has an ulterior motive for working in the park. When she was a child, Lennon’s sister disappeared during a visit there and was never found. Lennon is determined to find her sister, or whatever is left of her.
Here’s the thing: people disappear in national parks all the time. One moment they’re there and the next, they’re not. This is a real thing, and it’s led to conspiracy theories as to what’s going on in those remote forested areas. Ideas ranging from alien abductions to a network of satanic cults have been floated as explanations for those disappearances. Lennon has heard all of those ideas, listened to podcasts, and is convinced there is something more to the vanishing of her sister.
Sutherland does an excellent job of juxtaposing the isolation of the forest and the desperation of Lennon’s memories of her lost sister. Filmed in Portugal, the exteriors look like they could be anywhere in the world. That could be you, searching. That could be you, lost. It’s an uncomfortable thought.
Lennon’s journey through the woods takes the audience into strange territory. What Lennon experiences takes her both out into the wild and into the recesses of her own obsession. There are sequences that feel psychedelic, twisting and turning as reality shifts. Visuals and dialogue serve to confound the audience. There’s a compelling mystery at the heart of Lovely, Dark, and Deep, and Sutherland puts the viewers through their paces to gain any answers.
At first, Campbell portrays Lennon close to the vest. She’s uptight, a compulsive nailbiter, and distrustful of almost everyone she comes across. As Lennon unravels during her search for answers, Campbell becomes wild-eyed, constantly trying to stop herself from falling into an abyss of madness. Her facial expressions help make the character relatable, a woman on an unenviable quest, doubting her sanity. Lovely, Dark, and Deep is Campbell’s movie to carry and she does an incredible job.
Forested areas are legitimately scary at night, a fact that many horror films have used to their advantage. Some of the most frightening scenes in Lovely, Dark, and Deep take place during the daytime. Even the trees, which become as familiar as supporting characters, are unsettling. It’s a tremendous usage of location, one which benefits the film as a whole.
There is nothing not creepy about Lovely, Dark, and Deep. Well-crafted from beginning to end, the film is solid, tightly edited, and tense. It may make you think twice before loading up the car and heading outside for a weekend of camping.
The Fantasia International Film Festival runs through August 9, 2023. Learn more about Fantasia 2023 at their official website.