The Dark and the Wicked

Director: Bryan Bertino
Screenplay: Bryan Bertino
Stars: Marin Ireland (Louise), Michael Abbott Jr. (Michael), Julie Oliver-Touchstone (Mother), Lynn Andrews (Nurse), Tom Nowicki (Charlie), Michael Zagst (Father), Xander Berkeley (Priest), Ella Ballentine (Young Girl), Mel Cowan (Doctor)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2020
Country: U.S.
The Dark and the Wicked
The Dark and the Wicked

Bryan Bertino’s fourth feature, The Dark and the Wicked, plays like an inverted companion piece to his feature debut, The Strangers (2008). Both films center around a pair of characters in an isolated house being terrorized by forces malicious and cruel. However, while the horror in The Strangers was firmly rooted in the darkest pits of human psychology, with the film offering no explanation for it outside of people being sadistic for its own sake, The Dark and the Wicked takes a deep dive into the supernatural. It is similarly ambiguous in terms of the “why?”—Bertino stages his horrors with ruthless efficiency and is relentless in refusing to offer much in the way of explanation—but the “how” is clearly explained by demonic forces that remain largely unseen.

Virtually the entire film is set on a remote goat and sheep ranch somewhere in rural Texas. An adult sister and brother, Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.), have returned because their father (Michael Zagst) is comatose and dying and their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) is on the verge of a breakdown from the isolation and stress of caring for him. There is a nurse (Lynn Andrews) who helps out during the day, and the family employs a ranch-hand named Charlie (Tom Nowicki) to help manage the operations of the ranch, but otherwise the mother is alone. From the first images, Bertino establishes the idea that all is not right on the ranch, and he and cinematographer Tristan Nyby expertly defamiliarize the environs, turning the bleating animals, slowly twisting windmill, and open landscape into harbingers of dread. As he proved in the The Strangers, Bertino is a master of atmosphere who has an innate sense of just where to place and move the camera, what to show and what to hide, and how to rachet up the tension in ways that are deeply familiar to the genre, but deliriously effective nonetheless.

Suffice it to say that things start going bad at the ranch, fueled by an invisible presence with malicious intent (the “wicked” of the title, which does its nasty work mostly in the dark, but takes advantage of daylight hours, as well). This presence has been there long before Louise and Michael arrive, and we intuit that it is primarily responsible for the mother’s shaken condition, not just the toll of caring for her dying husband. There are mentions of the mother talking to someone who isn’t there, and she gives ample warning, telling her children that they shouldn’t have come. That was a good piece of advice, but once there, Louise and Michael can’t leave because the father is bedridden and the doctor won’t sign off on moving him, thus offering a convenient explanation for why they don’t just get the hell out of there.

Like The Strangers, The Dark and the Wicked is primarily an exercise in style and atmosphere. In his quest for ambiguity, Bertino keeps the characters largely opaque; he hints at unstable relationships, past tensions, and long-simmering resentments, but not much is made clear enough to define the characters as anything more than types. That is unfortunate, not only because Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. turn in strong, fierce performances, but because the film’s supernatural dread might have escalated even more had it been tied to the characters’ own psyches, which we see in superior horror films like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014), Robert Eggers’s The Witch (2016), and Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018). Bertino does draw in some theological issues, as Louise and Michael and their parents are strident nonbelievers whose atheism is flatly contradicted by the terrors they endure. “What does it matter if you believe?” asks the local priest, a drawling and unnecessarily creepy old man played by Xander Berkeley. “Do you think the wolf cares if you believe he’s a wolf?” In Bertino’s telling, though, there is no protection against the wolf, which gives The Dark and the Wicked a brutal fatalism that unfortunately turns its final third into a bit of a slog, as the lack of even a glimmer of hope leaves us resigned to simply enduring the worst.

Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (2.5)

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