“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
– The final stanza of Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.
In the press notes for Lovely, Dark, and Deep, writer/director Teresa Sutherland (The Wind) discusses both her youth camping in the woods and the awareness post-maturity that there are an alarming number of unresolved missing persons cases within the National Parks Service. This is the birth-place for her feature film directorial debut, which is having its world premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival 2023, starring Georgina Campbell (Barbarian), Nick Blood (The Offering), and Wai Ching Ho (Turning Red). Horror is often used as a way to explore the unknown, the taboo, and the traumatic, enabling the creator control over the uncontrollable. With elements that remind of films like The Endless (2017), Dark City (1998), and Inception (2010), Sutherland makes a big splash with Lovely, Dark, and Deep, achieving unrest and high anxiety by removing the perception of safety far too many apex predators think they possess when they wander into the woods by asking, what if you’re really a lamb entering a wolf’s den?
Ranger Lennon (Campbell) is set to begin her first season working at the expansive Arvores Park. In the orientation meeting, the head ranger of the location, Zhang (Ho), tells them all to “Leave nothing but footprints; Take nothing but memories; Kill nothing but time.” It’s a motto that serves the park, but it lingers within Lennon. A long time ago she lost her younger sister in this very park and has never stopped looking for answers to her disappearance. In the safety of nature, something happened, and, all alone in the woods, she may finally find out what.
Perception is everything. It’s what grants confidence to a fool and intelligence to the ignorant. It also gifts to the wise the ability to be quiet and observe. Sutherland understands this as everything in Lovely, Dark, and Deep comes with some kind of meaning and intention. It could be a line reading from Ho that comes off as a harbinger, whereas the same line from a different character would feel ordinary. Similarly, that same comparative line reading could also be different when one considers the headspace of Lennon at each point of the story. In either case, perception remains the key. Put directly, one is going to feel safe in the woods if one is conditioned to love being in nature. But, when night falls and danger lurks outside one’s fabric-constructed domicile, suddenly the previously-stalwart material is porous and infirm. Herein lies the peril of Lovely, Dark, and Deep — like other horror films, it subverts the tranquility of a perceived safe haven and dilutes it in the terror of uncertainty, all through the manipulation of perception.
Sutherland achieves this through a mixture of inspired cinematography, sound design, practical effects, and the proper application of nighttime dread (to name a few). Sometimes it takes the form of an overhead shot that starts tilting so that the audience feels the POV shift into an unnatural angle, the light of the sun disappearing, the reflection gone from the trees, as though we’re being forced into an unnatural place. At various times, all we have to go on to convey intention is Rui Poças’s (Zama) cinematography and it oscillates between clarity and confusion, meaning only to be found in personal extrapolation rather than to be overtly stated. This instills within the audience a sense that reality and illusion are naturally occurring, a sensation that leads to the audience asking themselves, “is this real?” at the most opportune moments. Sometimes it’s the form of voices that bounce around our ears, staged as though within Lennon’s too, as declarations from the past mix with the present, throwing Lennon into a state of confusion regarding when they are, not just where. But when Sutherland really wants to land her points home, it’s the clever use of practical effects that leaves one feeling the most squeamish, the most uncomfortable, due to grounding representations of sensory need, anxiety, and trauma within the real world rather than relying on computer-generated illusions.
Setting a horror film in the woods, a location with a long tradition of emanating isolation, the easy and expected route is to include a sequence at night wherein the only light is at the mercy of the depth and width of a government issue flashlight, but Sutherland also opts for sunlight where possible, ensuring that even the disinfecting light of day doesn’t protect her from whatever is out there. If it can attack during the day, then it has no fear of being seen. If it has no fear of being seen, then why is it in the woods? If it’s in the woods and doesn’t fear being seen, why does it remain hidden? All the answers lie in perception and the reason we fear what we don’t know. These questions rattle around, the answers forever on the periphery, making Lovely, Dark, and Deep possess a sense of deferred gratification, edging us until we, like Lennon, can continue on any further. This doesn’t mean that an answer eludes our questions (or Lennon’s, whom, as our protagonist has many), merely that Sutherland uses the quest for the answer as the mechanism for exploration, the answers being less important than the post-mortem.
The title of the film is taken from the last stanza of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” a brief poem in which a rider stops amidst falling snow to ponder his location and the being he believes lives in the woods. It’s a poem regarding death and the rider believing they have too many things left to do before their death and, therefore, will not resign themselves to die now. It could be an exploration of suicidal ideation or an examination of the undeniably of death coming for us all and the very human ability to say “not today.” As it relates to Sutherland’s film, I interpret the connection between Frost and her work as Lennon going into the woods to face-off against a manifestation of death when all other leads to uncover the mystery of her sister’s disappearance have gone dry. It doesn’t matter what she finds, it doesn’t matter if it leads to her own demise, Lennon wants to confront the thing which she believes holds the answers for all the pain she’s endured since that day with her sister as a little girl herself. It’s Lennon’s conviction which drives Lovely, Dark, and Deep forward, powered entirely by Campbell’s stirring performance, making the interpretation concrete in my mind. It does also convey a correlation between the idea of the poem and Lennon as big sister/ranger/protector. Without Campbell’s ability to convince us of the potentially impossible and Sutherland’s ability to make us believe we’re experiencing what Lennon is feeling, then it doesn’t matter how deep into the forest we journey, no matter how hard to try to venture through, we’ll never make it to the other side.
Screening during Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official Lovely, Dark, and Deep festival webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.