Female trauma and horror tend to go hand-in-hand, easily setting up the idea of a survivor who is about to face their greatest challenge yet. Therefore, it is no surprise that director Berkley Brady makes her feature directorial debut with the blood-soaked Dark Nature which leans into the deep psychological wounds of a group of women to drive the film’s integral theme.
The ironically named Joy (Hannah Emily Anderson) is six months out of an abusive relationship with a man who is both physically and psychologically cruel. Though months have passed, Joy continues to struggle in her recovery. Her friend Carmen (Madison Walsh) has the perfect solution to help her move forward – a healing nature retreat with a group of trauma survivors. Part therapy, part nature group, the wilderness retreat in the Canadian Rockies is led by Dr. Dunnley (Kyra Harper) who firmly believes that overcoming fears in nature will help heal the wounds of the past. Since this is a horror film, it can only be expected that instead of a healing nature quest, the women face a dark presence intent on inflicting some new trauma.
Co-written by Brady and Tim Cairo, Dark Nature will inevitably draw comparisons to Neil Marshall’s excellent female cave horror The Descent for its similar themes. But rest assured, Brady has enough of a fresh take here to keep viewers engaged. Working as both a survival thriller and an exploration of trauma, the movie does a good job at showing what can be accomplished by filming outdoors on a small budget.
Brady and cinematographer Jaryl Lim do a superb job at utilizing the Alberta wilderness. Together they prove that even when filming in the daylight, the woods can be a scary place. It’s what sets Dark Nature apart from its contemporaries prone to a nighttime setting. The snap of a twig and shrouded thicket holds more scare potential in the daylight than it does at night. Of course, it wouldn’t be a horror movie if there weren’t actually a creature in the woods. The film leans on practical effects for the creature to great success that’s only made all the more effective through creative cuts and framing. It’s budget storytelling done well.
Clocking in at less than 90 minutes, Dark Nature never feels rushed. Though certain aspects may come across as underdeveloped at times (namely some of the women’s backstories), the story is held together by a strong female ensemble. These characters have been developed into fully-fledged beings who are more than just their past traumas as they battle everything from combat PTSD to suicidal thoughts. These ladies have been through some shit and have come out the other side, a little worse for wear, but nevertheless intact. Their characterizations feel very real. As humans are prone to do, the women each view their own personal trauma as something more “authentic” than what the others in the group are feeling. Being able to dismiss others’ lived experience helps build up unease and distrust among the group so that when Joy starts hearing things, it can easily be explained away as being in her head.
Key to the development of the story is the friendship between Joy and Carmen. Though essential to the story, it is one of the film’s aspects that feels like it could have been fleshed out even further. Carmen is deeply concerned about Joy but feels drained by their one-sided friendship. She has the very relatable fear that there may not be enough to sustain a relationship between them going forward. This nature retreat is a last-ditch effort to repair their bond and the emotional balance between them is a delicate one, especially with fiery Tara (Helen Belay) in the mix.
Brady and Cairo have another missed opportunity to explore Dr. Dunnley’s motivations and what she is trying to accomplish with her trauma healing work. Strengthening these aspect of the story would only serve to deepen the connection between the audience and the characters.
When it comes to gore, Dark Nature definitely delivers, especially towards the last third of the film when it becomes a true survival film. The Swamp Thing-esque creature is a gory delight and it’s quite refreshing to see a literal monster show up. It makes nice albeit safe comparison to the very human-like monsters the women have confronted, especially Joy. The abuse Joy endures at the hands of her controlling partner Derek (Daniel Arnold) is harrowing. The gradual escalation of his abuse over a short amount of time feels as authentic as the film’s cave-dwelling monster. Arnold has mere minutes of screen time, but he makes such an impact, it’s worth a mention. As Joy, Anderson is credible and sympathetic, showing great capability as the lead.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Read BERKLEY BRADY on DARK NATURE, Career and Creative Choices, an interview by Marina Antunes.