The final verse of Robert Frost’s memorable poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” inspires and captures the essence of writer/director Teresa Sutherland’s (The Wind, “Midnight Mass”) directorial debut. Lovely, Dark, and Deep applies cosmic horror to a familiar genre setting, the wilderness, to unfurl a twisted, stunningly shot psychological mood piece. While Frost’s poem was deceptive in its simplicity, Sutherland’s debut only skims the surface of its themes, mining them for a beguiling cosmic nightmare.
After an ominous opener that teases all is not well in these woods, Sutherland’s debut introduces Lennon (Barbarian’s Georgina Campbell), the new park ranger filling a coveted, recently vacated position at an isolated outpost. From the outset, something’s amiss with Lennon. Visions of eerie black deer cross her path, only to dissipate in a blink as Lennon travels to her new position. Lennon overlooks all foreboding signs that something’s amiss; she needs this position for personal reasons. The more she settles into her minimalist outpost and begins her ulterior quest, the more unsettling things become as time derails and bizarre events signal something else is in the woods with her.
Much like Frost’s poem, Lovely, Dark, and Deep gives its setting a mystical quality, like a siren song that draws Lennon deeper into the wilderness. As the over-eager park ranger follows supernatural breadcrumbs laid out for her, it sends her on a contemplative, introspective voyage through deep-seated memories as they correlate to her haunted present. Time loses meaning altogether as reality ceases to exist.
Campbell’s natural charm and screen presence ensure we’re sympathetic to Lennon’s increasingly peculiar predicament. Supporting player Wai Ching Ho makes the most of her brief scenes, ensuring every scant second counts as Lennon’s sage superior. Sutherland weaves in enough visual clues to present a clear picture of the park ranger’s motivation. Yet the commitment to oblique storytelling makes it harder to identify or connect with the protagonist beyond simple survival aspirations. The more Lennon defies orders, behaves recklessly, and finds herself a pawn in a larger cosmic terror, the less subtle clues about her past have emotional weight. Campbell effortlessly conveys all of the emotions befitting of a horror movie but is hampered by the broad, intentionally vague brushstrokes of her character.
Offsetting this is Sutherland’s firm grasp on visual storytelling. Cinematographer Rui Poças (Good Manners) captures the pristine, natural beauty of preserved nature but ensures we can see all of it with refreshing clarity. While Lennon finds herself frequently shrouded by darkness, Poças renders night scenes with an all too rare clarity. It’s a gorgeous movie that even finds beauty in horror. Sutherland packs in cosmic horror imagery in the back half that externalizes Lennon’s psychological unraveling in a captivating way.
Lovely, Dark, and Deep presents a unique possibility to the countless people who go missing yearly in national parks. Sutherland imagines the horrific potential lurking in the isolated pockets of the world, far removed from society, using Lennon as an audience proxy to navigate the nightmare. Campbell navigates the emotional fallout of Lennon’s perilous journey, bolstered by Sutherland’s assured direction and haunting imagery, but there’s not much depth to the park ranger’s plight. Much like poetry and Frost’s poem, Lovely, Dark, and Deep employs lucid dream nightmare logic to spin its vague tale for audiences to infer their own conclusions. It makes for a visually impressive debut but one that only skims the surface of a vast cosmic abyss.
Lovely, Dark, and Deep made its world premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival. No distribution or release details have been announced at this time.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist.