The logline for writer/director Berkley Brady’s directorial feature debut Dark Nature describes it as “the story of a therapy group that is forced to confront the monsters of their past when an isolated weekend retreat tests their emotional resilience and ability to survive.” That’s pretty apt, albeit with one small issue: the Canadian film – with its all-female cast, wilderness setting and trauma-centric narrative – very closely resembles Neil Marshall’s The Descent, aka one of contemporary horror’s most iconic films. Like it or not, comparisons between the two films are inevitable.
The first act of Dark Nature is very strong: it opens with an incredibly disturbing incident of domestic abuse as Joy (What Keeps You Alive’s Hannah Emily Anderson) is strangled by her boyfriend, Derek (Daniel Arnold). The violence is visceral and triggering, so it makes complete sense that Joy is understandably still suffering the after-effects several months later. These are visually manifested as hallucinations of Derek and accompanied by the tell-tale audio cue of his Zippo clicking open, a recurring motif throughout the film.
Joy’s best friend Carmen (Madison Walsh) is sympathetic, but frustrated. Not only has Joy retreated into near-agoraphobia, but she’s also stopped engaging with anyone, including Carmen. The tentative conciliatory solution is an all-female wilderness weekend therapy group, led by the renowned, eccentric Dr. Dunley (Kyra Harper). This is Carmen’s attempt to help Joy regain a sense of agency and control, but it’s also a last-ditch attempt to salvage their friendship. In this sense, the relationship between the women is paramount; it is as important as the disturbing series of incidents that occur as the women trek further into the wilderness.
The film was shot in the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, Canada, and the on-location shoot makes effective use of the natural geography (rocky quarries, thick woods, and threatening bodies of water). Like most forest-set horror films, the geography is simultaneously gorgeous and terrifying: Brady and cinematographer Jaryl Lim frequently use aerial shots of trees and rock as far as the eye can see to reinforce the extreme isolation. These women are truly out on their own…except for the threat that is out there with them.
The first half of the film expertly walks the line without revealing too much about just what is going on. Joy is clearly experiencing PTSD flashbacks to her trauma, which makes her something of an unreliable protagonist. In this capacity, Dark Nature is treading familiar narrative ground to recent films like Saint Maud and Knocking, in which female-identifying characters spend the film questioning their sanity.
It’s a bit of a tired trope, but thankfully Brady adopts the now-familiar slasher POV shot early on to confirm that there is something else in the woods with them. Importantly these moments don’t just feature Joy, but also Carmen, and the other patients: self-harming Tara (Helen Belay) and former soldier Shaina (Roseanne Supernault). The question isn’t whether this is all in Joy’s mind, but rather who is out there with them: Derek…or someone else?
Alas, the reveal of just what is going on is also the point where Dark Nature loses its way. The film’s small budget mutes the effectiveness of several key moments of violence and both the plausibility of certain characters’ decisions and the film’s overall pacing suffer as the danger rises.
This slip is especially frustrating because we know from The Descent that this premise is a winner. Unfortunately, Dark Nature skips over its most unique and intriguing elements – the nature of Dr. Dunley’s treatment and the relationship between the women and their respective traumas – in order to get to the only-somewhat satisfying violent bits. The make-up effects are solid, sure, but the film laid the groundwork for a deeper exploration of healing via female friendships and therapy that ultimately fails to pay off.
Is it cathartic finally getting to see Joy work out her issues in bloody fashion? Absolutely…but Dark Nature could have been so much more.