Trauma is a starting point for numerous horror films for a few reasons, and highest among them is that it creates stakes with a survivor who’s about to face some new nightmare. The best use it as more than just a jumping off point and instead integrate the experience into the fight for survival that’s yet to come. Dark Nature succeeds on that front and more, and while it hits a few snags the end result is still an engrossing and exciting horror film.
Joy (Hannah Emily Anderson) is six months out of an abusive relationship with an ex who who menacingly flicked his metal lighter in the moments before bursting at her with violent rage. Six months, but she’s still attempting to recover and having little luck. Her friend Carmen (Madison Walsh) convinces her to join for a weekend hiking retreat, part trip into nature and part therapy session led by Dr. Dunnley (Kyra Harper). The idea is that facing more natural fears can help in facing the ones created by past experiences, and along with two other women, Shaina (Roseanne Supernault) and Tara (Helen Belay), they head into the wilds of Alberta, Canada on a quest for healing.
What they find instead are whispered reminders of past suffering and a presence in the woods hoping to inflict some trauma of its own.
Writer/director Berkley Brady‘s Dark Nature joins a long line of horror films about characters dealing with trauma, and if it can’t quite hit the memorable highs of films like Don’t Look Now (1973), His House (2020), or The Orphanage (2007), well, it doesn’t need to. The movie delivers a satisfying tale of survival on its straightforward premise with a protagonist who earns our concern and our cheers. At under ninety minutes it’s fair to say that most of the characters feel a bit underdeveloped, but the tradeoff is a welcome lack of drag or fat. It’s a lean fight against the things that want to hurt us.
All four of the supporting performances — five if you include Daniel Arnold‘s brief but terrifying turn as Joy’s ex — are strong despite the minimal attention paid to exploring their respective characters. The women are all patients of Dr. Dunnley, and all of them are dealing with emotional issues ranging from PTSD and suicidal thoughts to Carmen’s very real concerns over her friendship with Joy. There’s not enough attention paid to their relationship in this regard, but it’s still a refreshing take on a one-sided friendship as Carmen has been so drained by Joy that she just doesn’t think she can pick up the pieces any more.
Joy is the center of Dark Nature, though, and she’s just strong enough of a protagonist to really be all we ultimately need. It’s clear the past six months have left her rattled and prone to dark imaginations, but when she starts hearing and seeing things in the woods it’s unclear if they’re real. The answer comes soon enough when the others start hearing voices too, and Brady’s script does good work teasing those emotional concerns into something far more tangible. Brief glimpses give way to clearer views, and both the “creature” design and performance sell it as a very physical threat. The film wisely avoids offering up a detailed explanation as to what it is exactly, but the pieces are there in stories about the area and the indigenous peoples that lived there.
This is far from an expensive film in the grand scheme, but Brady and cinematographer Jaryl Lim make a strong case for filming outdoors no matter the budget. They take immense advantage of the natural beauty and dangers that make up the vast Alberta region, and they succeed at finding a creepy vibe even in the light of day thanks to the dense trees and tight crawlspaces. That latter element will lead some to make comparisons to Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005) — another horror classic that finds motivation in trauma — but both the characters dynamics and cave time are kept to a minimum here.
Dark Nature is ultimately a fairly straightforward tale of survival as Joy and the others fight against past wounds and present monsters, and while it doesn’t rewrite the subgenre it delivers where it counts with horrifying chills and survival thrills. And no spoilers here, but it’s also a film that nails the ending by doing right by its characters — sounds simple enough, but far too many horror movies drop the ball in those final minutes while this one holds on tight.
Related Topics: Fantasia Film Festival