Dark Nature, the feature directorial debut from Berkely Brady, makes its world premiere at Fantasia Festival on Monday, July 18th. Part of Fantasia Festival’s “Septentrion Shadows” collection, this selection showcases films of the North at the Canadian festival.
Hannah Emily Anderson, of Fox’s The Purge series and What Keeps You Alive (a personal favorite of mine) stars as Joy, a woman looking to put her abusive relationship behind her. She retreats to nature with her best friend Carmen (Madison Walsh) and her therapy group. They’re venturing out to face their traumas and fears. It won’t take a genius to guess that Dark Nature will refer to not only the setting itself, but also what we might find out about Joy on this trip.
In Joy’s memory, her ex-boyfriend is a real villain (almost cartoonishly diabolical). The film begins with Joy and her boyfriend Derek in their ridiculously nice apartment. While she’s made him a dinner that he should be enjoying, he’s incredibly angry for reasons that we’re not aware of. I’ll put a mild spoiler here, because I always want to know when this sort of thing happens — Joy’s dog ends up the victim of her boyfriend’s outburst.
Kyra Harper stars as Dr. Carol Dunnley, the therapist who will be leading the group through their healing weekend in the woods. Right away, she reassures Joy that “risk equals growth”, a message that should be affirming, but the eerie score by the band Ghostkeeper warns us that something more sinister is at play.
The gorgeous and chilling soundtrack by Ghostkeeper matches the setting and tone of the film perfectly. The sound design throughout Dark Nature is brilliant; you can hear the group’s footsteps as they walk through the woods, hear the sounds of birds and bugs around them, and each sound begs the audience to pay close attention as the group makes their way through the Canadian Rockies.
Dr. Dunnley and another member of the group, Shaina (Roseanne Supernault), repeatedly push the others past their comfort zones, assuring them that this is where growth happens. Shaina and Dr. Dunnley both think, though, that Joy and Tara are merely afraid of climbing mountains and traversing dangerous paths. Dr. Dunnley assures them over and over again that the area they are in is safe, that people had long been coming to these woods and mountains for healing ceremonies.
As Joy’s flashbacks become more visceral, she begins to sense that something more sinister really is at play — it’s more than just bad memories surfacing and minor setbacks on her healing journey. Carmen and the other group members doubt her, assuring her that this is a normal part of growth and change. Only one member of the group, Tara (Helen Belay), really believes Joy, and believes that something strange is happening to them.
Only when another member of the group goes missing does anyone else start to believe that something darker is going on. From this point, things quickly escalate, and there is no more guessing whether the strange occurrences are all in Joy’s head. Up until this point, Dark Nature felt like a psychological thriller; from here on, it’s pure psychological horror, and it’s an impressively seamless shift.
Like other folk-horror films (which so often take place in the woods) a bit too much is given away when the monster is revealed. Much of the mysteriousness of the film’s first half dissolves when we actually lay eyes on the monster responsible for their torment. Despite this, Ghostkeeper’s thumping score and Brady’s clever use of light and shadows keeps the suspense going. Much of the terror of Dark Nature happens during the day, although there also some fantastically creepy scenes at night.
Dark Nature won’t have you jolting through jump-scares nor cringing at gore, but it will absolutely keep you on the edge of your seat. While Dark Nature never actually dives too far into each character’s traumas, instead just mentioning them quickly, the film’s climax is excellent, with the sort of emotional payoff you’d hope for from a psychological horror such as this.
Dark Nature makes its World Premiere at Fantasia Festival, July 18th 2022.
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