Teresa Sutherland knows something about nature that we’ve always suspected in our bones, but have been too afraid to verbalize. With 2018’s supernatural thriller set on the Western frontier, The Wind, which Sutherland wrote, the disorienting power rushing through barren land was blown to stark and bone-chilling proportions, deftly exposing the ways in which isolation and flat, uncaring, empty land can lead to madness. With this year’s Lovely, Dark, and Deep, Sutherland not only writes but also directs a tale that takes terror to the other extreme, depicting how lush nature can be as maddening as a prairie plain.
Charting a deeply feminine kind of fearsomeness, Lovely, Dark, and Deep is a triumph. Viscerally terrifying, this captivating and subtle horror allows lead Georgina Campbell to shine in ways more complex and nuanced than what we saw of her in Barbarian, allowing her to reveal herself as an actress able to lend the final girls she portrays a modern strength and vulnerability. The film is a success twofold, first for its unique and unsettling mythos that takes the folk horror subgenre and subversively casts it in a new, unruly form, and second, for its tender grace, which Campbell channels. Ultimately, this horror fleshes out previously uncharted psychological terrain, to scare in new and deeply human ways.
The film follows Campbell’s Lennon, a young back-country ranger who volunteers to take on a post in a remote area of wilderness. Officially, Lennon is in the deep woods to assist any campers who might need help or direction, but really, Lennon has another plan: clocking in everyday over radio, she tells her colleagues that she is keeping watch, but actually, she is hiking through densely wooded land in search for answers to the disappearance of her sister nearly 20 years prior. Things get super creepy and the mystery thickens impossibly as Lennon gets nearer and nearer to unraveling the secrets the woods are keeping.
That this film’s fearsomeness is feminine means that it’s endlessly confounding, deliciously beguiling, but in a subtle way, in the way getting lost in a convoluted maze doesn’t feel terrifying until it immediately and suddenly does. Sutherland’s narrative delights in not so much a witchy horror as a mystical one. Where The Wind tapped into a deeply female fear, feminine in the sense that women historically did go mad due to isolation as Americans ventured West in the country’s early days, where The Wind married demonology with something sociological, depicting a woman supernaturally hounded by the violence and neglect of the patriarchy, Lovely, Dark, and Deep does something more complex.
This film offers up a woman hounded by traditional, patriarchal notions of femininity. In other words, it casts nature as the monstrous feminine, that horrific female figure who, in horror, poses a threat to patriarchal morality and standards because of her sexuality (in film, this fear of a woman’s sexuality appears in various individual iterations or interpretations, depending on a narrative’s demands; she can be a witch, a vampire, any monster), and therefore she is a figure that needs to be defeated and snuffed out. In casting the forest as this threatening figure, Sutherland magnificently subverts expectations, turning folk horror on its head. Nature has always been a stunning allegory for or corollary to the beautiful tumultuousness of womanhood, and Sutherland, through this film, allows it to haunt and hunt unabated and unabashed.
Sutherland offers a forest alive, carrying in a preternatural, metaphorical manner certain conceptions that have been caked onto women throughout history. For Sutherland, the forest is something like a disorienting witch, it contains and is roiling with a kind of inexplicable and dangerous force, it carries a contagion and is apt to turn a person mad. In this sense, this film brilliantly winks at its equally-captivating and bewitching predecessor, The Blair Witch Project, another film about the dangerous feminine.
What’s more, as Sutherland grafts the monstrous feminine onto land, onto trees and leaves and dirt and wind and water, she has a female protagonist not so much working to destroy the horror, but venturing out to explore it, to solve its mysteries. Campbell is spellbinding as she carries Lennon through the wilderness, in turn frightened and strong against the terrors that surround her. It’s a deft skill to be able to communicate volumes of history and pain in a single movement, and Campbell is certainly deftly skilled. In the way she heaves her bag into her little cabin, in the way she sits diligently before her map, studying it, she conveys an aching humanity in Lennon in a way that I believe few other actors would have been able to do. And as a force venturing into the wilderness, Campbell’s Lennon is mightily graceful, portraying fear and awe simultaneously in a manner that works so breathtakingly well to complement this film’s untamable terror.
I don’t know if Lovely, Dark, and Deep will be for everyone. It is subtle, bright, and powered by muted grief and guilt, but it is also so scary it will have you looking over your shoulder to make sure there’s no one behind you. It’s the kind of horrific to make you not want to go camping for a while. But more than any of that, this film is whirling and unruly as it commands a kind of awe and respect for nature, for the monstrous feminine. Carried by Campbell’s immaculate performance, Lovely, Dark, and Deep is a spectacular achievement, staunchly carrying on the torch of the fearsome feminine from its beguiling predecessors.