“Dark Nature” is a beautifully shot and exquisitely framed psycho-thriller, set in the midst of attractively bleak autumnal coastal landscapes which it uses almost as a form of abstract wallpaper dressing for its more obvious genre trappings. Unfortunately, it also tries just a bit too hard for its own good to convince us of its edgy, enigmatic arthouse credentials by attempting to hark back to a great tradition of distinctive 1970s classics like “Long Weekend”, “The Wicker Man”, “Straw Dogs” and “Don’t Look Now”, but in a really unconvincing way. The transparency of this film's efforts to fabricate that undefinable alchemy which makes those aforementioned works such original, intelligent instances of cinematic horror, is precisely the film's main problem in the end: director Marc de Launay can’t help but encourage associations his low budget film can't live up to, and which bring with them too heavy a burden attached to the long list of stylistic traits and tropes "Dark Nature" apes in tribute to its many influences -- such that the end product of his efforts can barely function as a legitimate piece of work in its own right; and the film certainly doesn’t resonate with the viewer, ultimately, as anything more worthwhile than a string of reminders of other movies that worked the same seams much more skilfully. The opening double murder sequence offers us a clever variant nod to the opening of Mario Bava’s “Bay of Blood”, but as the eco/murder theme develops it becomes apparent that the whole piece is virtually an un-credited remake, relocated to Dumfries and the bleak coast of Scottish Galloway, and then plastered in clumsy Michael Haneke-isms with intent to try and foist serious existential kudos on what might otherwise be taken for rather weak, ill-defined, meandering and ultimately derivative material.
The pre-credit murders segue into a speeded-up bustle of urban traffic set to the contrasting soothing calm of a Chopin sonata on the soundtrack, until we settle on the occupants of one particular vehicle that’s leaving the city behind it and heading into a wild, brooding rural Scottish landscape. A shot of the four inside the vehicle, pictured through the car windscreen with the civilised classical musical accompaniment, comes straight from Haneke’s “Funny Games”; the family forcibly cloistered here in this tiny moving tin box prove to be a predictably dysfunctional lot, barely able to put on a front of getting-along-togetherness as they head for a picturesque holiday cottage on the Scottish coast that’s owned by Jane’s (Vanya Eadie) mother, Mrs Petrie (Doreen McGillivray). It seems to take about twenty minutes of the film’s seventy-five minute run-time for them to get there, though. In the meantime, we’re treated to lengthy picturesque visual digressions -- courtesy of cinematographer Andrew Begg -- that allow the film to wallow in evocative cinematic shots that leisurely take in the desolate beauty inherent to the vast stretches of Galloway’s mudflats pictured at sunset, accompanied by brooding, ambient noises on the soundtrack intended to engender a forbidding undertow of portentous threat as an ironic contrast to the unwary politeness of the Chopin tinkling.
The twin themes of sheltered urban civilisation vs. the unsparing law of the survival of the fittest and the red-in-tooth-and-claw values commonly associated with notions of an untamed nature; and the suggestion that this urban family’s arrival in this pristine landscape represents mankind’s encroachment on a previously unspoiled environment (a pheasant is hit by their car and each discarded cigarette butt is lingered on sadly) are atmospherically set up here in tribute to Colin Eggleston’s “Long Weekend”. The film also suggests an existential split between the male and female members of the family, with Jane and her surly teenage daughter Chloe (Imogen Toner) engaged in an insidious but determined battle of wills for dominance over the family dynamics in the wake of Jane’s divorce from Chloe’s father, while Jane’s son and her current boyfriend John (James Bryce) are more conciliatory and intellectual, pictured at one point bonding over an historical exhibit when the family stop off at a small museum on their way to the cottage, while Jane and Chloe continue their bickering and needling (which Chloe escalates by way of flirting with the elderly and bemused-looking museum attendant she finds on site! ). Both females are, at different points in the film, seemingly endowed with a prophetic sense of foreknowledge, suggesting a closer connection to the natural landscape that also empowers each of them in their own separate ways with greater strength and fortitude than the more ‘reason-orientated’ male figure who’s attempting unsuccessfully to take the place of the youngsters’ father, and who comes across always as being weak and ineffectual; it is also suggested by events at the end of the film that the females’ battle with each other mimics the constant violent struggle for survival going on in nature, as part of the natural ecological balancing process.
Once our protagonists do actually finally manage to arrive at the site of their Scottish holiday destination, they soon discover Jane’s mother and her step-father are apparently missing (we can only guess that they were the two victims seen violently dispatched in the pre-credit sequence) and Jane’s sister, Emily (Joanna Miller) and her boyfriend (Len Mccaffer), having already arrived, have settled in with apparent unconcern as to their fate. Jane and her current boyfriend set out for the nearby woods to try and find the missing grandparents who they presume have simply gone for a walk, while Chloe and her brother amble along the mudflats on the beachfront. Eventually more murders take place in the isolated setting and there are several odd characters lurking about in the vicinity, each of whom seem crazy enough to be potential suspects responsible for the slaughter: there’s the environmentalist Mr Haywood (Tom Carter), who videos himself in the woods making lengthy observations about environmental pollution and Gaia-like speculations about the planet’s self-correcting mechanisms for obtaining balance, while also finding time for a spot of clandestine pervy spying on his neighbours with his camcorder. There’s also a sombre, greasy-haired gamekeeper (Niall G. Fulton) who stalks about on the grounds and wetlands looking faintly manic the whole time, and who signals marked proclivities toward antisocial behaviour with his constant gutting, slicing and dicing of the various animal species he happens upon.
The screenplay by Eddie Harrison doesn’t really do anything significantly evocative with this hackneyed slasher set-up, and none of de Launay’s stylistic arthouse flourishes pass muster, in the final analysis, in making the film feel like it’s capable of becoming more than the sum of its parts. The film’s effective sound design and the enigmatic stillness and tension-filled silences de Launay wedges between languid shots of ominous-looking deserted beachfronts and woodlands are no substitute for the absence of any real originality or verve. The acting is of an acceptable standard, although none of the characters particularly stand out much. When the amateur environmentalist, Haywood, turns out to enjoy pinning insects in his study, and his wife is revealed as a reclusive tarot card reader, the film’s frequent narrative borrowings from other sources become too overt to ignore any longer (both these two character elements are, for instance, once again, straight out of Bava’s “Bay of Blood”) and start to dominate the material to such an extent that any claims by the director to be subverting the genre fail to hold water. Indeed, Bava’s film never attempted to pass itself off as anything other than a popular horror genre thriller but was much more pertinent in its address of the ecological themes motivating both films than this much more ponderous and self-consciously 'clever' work ever manages. By the time we reach the screenplay’s last act ‘home invasion’ scenario and the weedy dad figure tries to set up a bear trap as a means of snaring the assailant who’s tormenting his failing family (a contraption which just happens to be hanging up as a decorative ornament in the old lady’s cottage) the obvious and completely unnecessary reference to “Straw Dogs” is the final nail in the film’s flimsy coffin of plagiarisms. The supposed offbeat, enigmatic conclusion is in fact completely predictable if you’ve ever seen Bava’s film (or “Who Can Kill a Child” for that matter) and viewers are advised that they’d be much better off watching “Bay of Blood” on a double bill with “Lost Weekend” if they really want to see these ecological themes tackled effectively and sincerely in a well-made and (for the time) original genre vehicle.
Matchbox Films are bringing out this 2009 film in the UK on DVD only. The digital video photography looks clear and limpid on this transfer, though, and the sound design works nicely. As for extra material, there’s about half an hour’s worth, consisting of a variety of ‘making of’ footage sandwiched together in one block, including a brief interview with the director of the film and one of its stars, Vanya Eadie; raw behind the scenes video footage; and a production gallery of stills.
We also get a trailer and two short films, each produced by Marc de Launay but directed by different people. “The Last Noel” is a quirky comedy about a young sceptical lad who encounters someone claiming to be Santa Claus skulking about in his living room in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve; while “Contorted Hazel” is a wonderfully effective twenty-minute gothic ghost story, written and produced by de Launey and directed by John Gorman. This tale about a small boy with a troubled parental past who finds himself living with his single mum in a deserted National Trust property while she’s looking after the place over the winter period, is far more intriguing than the main feature; and director of photography Keith Ingram does excellent work in evoking a mouldy atmosphere of shadows and dust. The ghostly presences themselves are also well-conceived and extremely menacing, floating in nightmarish blue moonlight like black ink spots in fetid water. If the hints of narrative in this short could have been expanded to feature length and the effort to court profundity in “Dark Nature” had been jettisoned to make it a more truncated short film, each work would have been considerably more effective. So, the concluding verdict must be that there’s plenty of latent talent discernible on this platter … it’s just yet to find a properly justified outlet.
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