Dark Nature has its world première at Fantasia 2022
“There’s no coming to consciousness without pain and discomfort,” Dr Carol Dunnley (Kyra Harper) tells Joy (Hannah Anderson) some way into Dark Nature, as she leads Joy and three other damaged women on a therapeutic weekend trek through Little Deer Lake in the Canadian Rockies. “People will do anything to avoid it.”
It is now six months after Joy extracted herself from a toxic, controlling relationship with the abusive Derek (Daniel Arnold), but she remains a nervous wreck. Dragged along by her best friend Carmen (Madison Walsh), distracted, jumpy Joy reluctantly joins ‘mind queen’ Dunnley, PTSD-afflicted army vet Shaina (Roseanne Supernault) and wrist-scarred Tara (Helen Belay) on the backwoods camping trip. Introducing herself to Shaina as a ‘psychopath’, Joy is always casting an eye back for fear that the ever-dogged Derek might have followed her out there, however irrational that thought may be – but the very fact that she has come along suggests a desire to overcome her trauma.
Still Joy keeps hearing, and even seeing, Derek around the forests, defiles and creeks of this wilderness, and POV shots suggest that there is indeed someone or something watching and stalking the five women from the tree line. Soon Tara too has noticed, and is having the same dreams as Joy of a shadowy presence, not to mention vividly re-encountering horrific episodes from her past while very much awake. It is almost as though Dunnley’s course of therapy is going too well, as the women become ever more easily triggered by their natural environment.
Psychological thrillers tend to focus on a ‘primal scene’ from an unresolved past, whereas survival thrillers typically play out very much in the visceral moment. This feature debut from writer/director/producer Berkley Brady collapses Joy’s (and Tara’s) persistent, painful memories into the immediate now, via flashbacks that are all at once of the mental and cinematic kind. For this excursion beyond the bounds of the women’s urban life really does allow them to work through their problems, even if there is also a different kind of threat, particularised and local, circling them with its own (super)natural assaults which, ike Derek’s, are all at once physical and psychological. “Yes I will face my trauma – or whatever,” Joy says half-heartedly – and soon she will be facing both, as her past trauma and a present ‘whatever’ will merge into one terrifying, aggressive hybrid monstrosity which must be conquered if Joy is ever to move on. Still, though dismissed and underestimated, Joy is stronger than anyone realises.
Illuminating its natural locations with ever more artificial, even psychedelic lighting, Dark Nature shifts gradually from realism towards creature feature – and even as the film ventures further into darkness and into a blood-spattered cavernous lair, it never loses sight of Joy’s similarly hidden interiority. As such, it sets up camp in the same generic terrains as John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy (1979), Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005), Adam MacDonald’s Backcountry (2014), Roxanne Benjamin’s Body at Brighton Rock (2019) and John Hyams’ Alone (2020), where natures, both inner and outer, complement each other, and where ecological horror and the ordeals of healing come to express parts of the same consciousness.
strap: Berkley Brady’s feature debut merges the natural, the supernatural and the psychological on an all-female trip into the wild
© Anton Bitel