THE DARK AND THE WICKED (2020)
Directed by Bryan Bertino
Written by Bryan Bertino
Starring Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr., Julie Oliver-Touchstone, Lynn Andrews, Tom Nowicki, Michael Zagst, Xander Berkeley, Charles Jonathan Trott, Ella Ballentine, Mel Cowan, Mindy Raymond, Chris Doubek
Find out more about this film here!!
Like many, THE STRANGERS scared me. It scared me on a primal level and there really haven’t been too many modern films that have been able to do that to me. Since then, I’ve paid close attention to filmmaker Bryan Bertino to see if he was able to repeat the magic. And while THE MONSTER and MOCKINGBIRD were decent, they didn’t live up to the greatness of THE STRANGERS. Bertino recently released his latest film THE DARK AND THE WICKED. Will this one live up to the hype and match the sheer terror that came from THE STRANGERS…let’s see.
While it sounds like a horror western, THE DARK AND THE WICKED tells the modern day tragedy of Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) who return to their childhood farmhouse to help their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) care for their ailing father (Michael Zagst). It appears that Father is seeing his last days and the two siblings return to mainly be there to console their mother and help out with whatever the large sheep farm needs. But upon arriving at the home, it is apparent that a dark pall has fallen over the house. Their mother is depressed and barely speaks, only doting to their father’s every need with the help of their superstitious nurse (Lynn Andrews). Mother tells the two that they shouldn’t have come and warns them of dark things afoot in the home. When a sudden death occurs, Louise and Michael are both hit with the grief of losing a parent, but also a dark and wicked force that is looking to devour the souls of the entire family. While this evil seems to be invisible to the naked eye, this force appears to them in fevered dreams and waking nightmares , attempting to destroy the family.
THE DARK AND THE WICKED is going to hit viewers who have lost a loved one to a long-term illness hard. The death of a loved one is a devastating thing. Even though one might be sick for a long time, the shock of having them gone is never easy. The reality of the fatality of the disease hangs in the air and even though you might occasionally catch glimpses of it, you’re always surprised when it actually comes. That’s the narrative of THE DARK AND THE WICKED in a nutshell. It’s a metaphorical deep dive into grief and loss as the two main characters Louise and Michael return home to their father who is on his deathbed. They share guilt for leaving home and staying away for so long, resentment toward one another for not being the one to stay and take care of the situation, and pity for their mother who has stayed by their father’s side and watched him deteriorate. Even before the first paranormal event occurs in THE DARK AND THE WICKED, this film drives these intense and powerful emotions home through the beleaguered faces and heavy tones of the first few minutes we spend with this family.
This is where the metaphor of guild, remorse, and grief rises as a dark specter that haunts the family home. The mother is obviously suffering from depression. She is zombie-like and lifeless when she talks with her son and daughter. This is a woman who is broken by the burden that she has been carrying and not wanting to see that life taken from her adult children, she wants them to leave and warns them of the grave circumstances of staying. When they don’t leave, tragedy strikes and the film handles this horror in an equally heavy tone. While the film hints at supernatural forces occurring from the beginning, it’s not until an unexpected death occurs that Louise and Michael really start understanding that their mother wasn’t just speaking in purple prose when she said evil was in the house. Bertino uses tons of camera trickery and moody set design to fill the house with dark corners and dimly lit corridors. Not so subtly hinted at in the title, this is an extremely dark film where the shadows are untrustworthy and everywhere. This makes you on edge for pretty much the entire runtime as every frame is shrouded in deep shadow.
The devil Louise and Michael’s mother writes about in her journal does seem to be real. The film is very unspecific in naming exactly what kind of evil is haunting the farmhouse. Is it a skinwalker? There are definite signs of this as the evil seems to take different form and with the setting being South Texas, it definitely is the right locale for it. It also could just be evil spirits or demons, but none are specifically named. We never know the origins of this evil or what the family did to unleash its curse on the family. Here we only see through the eyes of Louise and Michael, who know next to nothing about their estranged parents as they have been absent from their lives for so long. It is apparent that they weren’t the most loving family, but still, these children are good enough to return home during a time of need. Still, this burden of being at home, away from their real lives is highlighted as Michael desperately wants to leave and go home to his family. Louise is less lucky and seems to have lived a harder life on her own. With less options, she seems adamant to stay and be the doting child and see this tragedy through to the end. By mixing real life feelings with other worldly evils, Bertino delivers a mix of considerable emotional heft and true supernatural dread like few others have done in horror.
Though the dread-level is overflowing, Bertino takes his time to build suspense and tension in some extremely scary scenes, yet never wallows in this dread like other popular “elevated” horror films like MIDOMMAR, HEREDITARY, THE LIGHTHOUSE, and THE LODGE. Bertino utilizes the heavy emotional themes to help us sympathize and get to know our two leads, but never lingers so long as to bore the audience. While I wouldn’t call this film full of jump scares because that suggests that these scares are hollow and lack anything in their delivery. But THE DARK AND THE WICKED is full of horrors from beginning to end. There are moments that startle, but then you are secondarily terrified once the thing that jumped out of the dark is identified. These scares deliver, more so here than in many films you’re bound to see this year.
The cast is no overpowering. Here the darkness is the star of the film. It was smart to populate the film with relatively unknown actors like Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. who deliver their lines remarkably well and with much skill, but you’re never distracted in thinking this is an actor from another film you have seen. Ireland is especially good here as Louise, a person life has not been kind to, but she still manages to find enough will to care. Abbott works well off of Ireland as he represents the opposite of her situation, acknowledging that they no longer know these people and therefore have no responsibility for them. These are not bad people for thinking thoughts like this. They’re real people reacting in a very real way to an emotionally harrowing situation and a supernaturally evil one.
One of the smaller players in this tragedy is the always strong acting of Xander Berkeley. While I would have preferred to see an unknown in the role that in many ways is reminiscent of Julian Beck’s Kane from POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE. He plays a priest that prophesizes evil to any who stay in the house and is often shown in silhouette to make him even more ominous. I also have to give it to the actress who plays the unnamed Mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) who has a frail singing voice that is the stuff of night terrors.
You’re not going to come out of THE DARK AND THE WICKED skipping and whistling show tunes. This is a joyless film and I don’t think I saw any of the cast crack a smile once. Though it is permeated with dread from beginning to end, Bertino’s THE DARK AND THE WICKED didn’t feel extraneous or overwrought. It is a thorough and effective descent into the darkest feelings one can have as an adult. It’s patient, but potent in the delivery of the scares it makes you wait for. While it doesn’t match the sheer primal terror that was THE STRANGERS, THE DARK AND THE WICKED delivers a more mature and deeply piercing story of saying goodbye to those you loved and trying desperately to not be pulled down into the abyss with them.