Folklore is easily the earliest form of storytelling we have. Some folklore is intended to serve as lessons in morality or ethics, designed to push a people into certain behaviors, while others are merely stories passed down through the generations to keep the beliefs of a community alive well past any singular individual’s expiration. In cinema, mining folklore for storytelling is one of the oldest traditions with some upholding less ideal tropes (Poltergeist (1982)) while others weaponize them to devastating affect (The Vigil (2019)). Having its world premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival 2022 is writer/director Berkley Brady’s feature-film directorial debut, Dark Nature, a thriller which seeks to blend the psychological with the supernatural in a tale of survival.
Six months after leaving her abusive boyfriend Derek (Daniel Arnold), Joy (Hannah Emily Anderson) continues to struggle with her trauma. In an effort to help find a breakthrough, Joy’s friend Carmen (Madison Walsh) invites Joy on a weekend excursion lead by trauma specialist Dr. Carol Dunnley (Kyra Harper). Though reluctant, Joy joins the small group comprised of fellow patients Carmen, Tara (Helen Belay), and Shaina (Roseanne Supernault) to camp out in the wilderness, pushing themselves to face their pain. Things start off fine, but the further into the wild they go, Joy can’t help feeling a familiar presence lurking among the trees. Shrugged off by Carmen as traumatic paranoia, proving why Joy needs to get help, Joy’s concerns go unheeded. That is, until the others start to notice a similar feeling of observation, but, by then, it’s too late.
Based on a story by Tim Cairo (Lowlife), Brady’s script kicks off with various images of natural elements becoming twisted or tainted in some form. It could be as simple as making it appear as though a still image of trees in a forest is moving or the appearance of blood mixing with a natural water fixture. This sets a tone for violence, for discomfort, and it does so by implying not just danger in the woods but that there’s something dark within nature itself. Given that the scene following the opening establishes Joy and her complex relationship with Carmen and ex Derek, Brady places an anchor in the notion that there’s (a) something aberrant in humanity that would terrorize as violently as some do and (b) trauma lingers, echoing in silence as loud as an air raid siren. The introductory scene takes place at Derek’s before transitioning to Joy’s, a shift which one would presume would make her feel safer, especially after six months, but she doesn’t. There is no place where Joy isn’t jumping out of her skin, where she doesn’t hit the click-clack of Derek’s lighter, the device he’d pull out when growing frustrating. Hearing anything similar, whether imagined or real, instantly sets Joy on her heels. This is one of several things within the script that does perfectly capture the feeling of being a trauma survivor: the constant hyperawareness, the searching for facial cues, the frustration at minimization that comes from others who don’t understand. The ending, in particular, is poignant as it nails home that survival is a day-to-day process and sometimes all you need is determination and a great friend.
**Spoiler alert **
In the opening sequence, a dog is murdered. It is off-screen, but we hear it and it’s devastating.
**End of spoiler**
Shot on-location in the Canadian Rockies utilizing practical effects and stunts, Dark Nature is as grounded as possible. The cinematography from Jaryl Lim (Daddy Issues) is beautiful whether capturing the warm tones of Derek’s apartment (implying hearth and home), the stark whiteness of Joy’s apartment (implying isolation), or the sparks of green within the wilderness (implying a return to nature and rebirth). Outside of discussion of bears, the woods appear to present no actual threat to the group. Instead, thematically, the woods are framed as a place of reconnection. In one instance, there’s a shot of the support group walking downward through a rocky crevasse, prompting each of the women to run their hands over the high walls. Given the nature of each person’s trauma (some more clearly explored than others), there’s a sense of the women walking into a stone womb, the excursion into nature a kind of rebirth. Brady herself is Métis, meaning she comes from a tribe of Indigenous and Euro-American descent peoples, and the script references the particular path this group follows as being part of a centuries-old area known for gifting sacrifices to a woodland spirit. This is both a way to view the area in which they trek as connecting the support group to a greater plane of thinking, while also serving as the beginning of the greater mystery at the heart of Dark Nature.
Sadly, the film loses much of its steam through the process of setting up the narrative in the opening credits. It’s not that the film isn’t disquieting or uncomfortable, there’re several moments of each. It’s that the script wants to put the audience on the edge of its seat, but it’s turned all its cards face up before the credits wrap. If Joy is to be the audience’s surrogate, we should know about as much as she. This way, with each cryptic answer from Dr. Dunnley, each harassing comment from socially-awkward Shaina, each expression of frustration from Carmen, the audience begins to question whether Joy is hearing Derek or if the isolation in a foreign place with a group of mostly strangers is pushing her over the edge. Except the opening credits tell us exactly what’s going on, a notion cemented by a conversation between Joy and Dr. Dunnley about the area they’re hiking through. The audience, therefore, has no reason to question the broken hiker’s equipment they come across or consider the hunters they meet who are in search of their lost dog (the support group just presumes the hunters are creepy and hitting on them) because we know what is really going on. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t any surprises. There comes a revelation that makes the end exciting. It also shifts the way we’ve viewed Joy, almost pulling a desire to rewatch the whole film as it offers a completely different context.
The whole film is anchored by the cast, specifically Anderson who gives a complex and intentional performance from start to finish. Each cast member plays their part well, offering just enough balance and consternation so that before the folklore presented in the credits comes into full view, the audience does question the motives of Dr. Dunnley amid the various harbingers before Joy makes it to the start of the hike. Even with an interesting creature design and claustrophobic sets, that we know exactly what’s coming reduces the terror exponentially. There’s a clear desire to be more like Jaws here by placing the creature up front, but, by doing so, it undercuts a far more interesting story regarding Joy, her trauma, and the consequences of not facing it sooner.
Screening during the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official Dark Nature Fantasia International Film Festival film page.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.