They say home is the place where we feel the safest. Of course, that’s only true if you come from a happy home. In Bryan Bertino’s latest feature The Dark and the Wicked, we see Louise (Marin Ireland) and her brother Michael (Michael Abbott, Jr.) return to the rural farm they grew up on. News of their father’s condition has reached them, and the siblings rush to be at his side in spite of the fact they are estranged. Tragedy after tragedy then befalls the family, leading to an otherworldly revelation.
Bertino has made a career out deconstructing personal havens (The Strangers), scrutinizing familial bonds (The Monster), and exploring disturbia (Mockingbird). His newest film touches on all three themes all the while staying in touch with what else is in vogue within the genre. By that, The Dark and the Wicked has devilish timing. Anyone who notices trends will observe the most obvious ones in this movie — anxiety caused by one’s ancestral home, eldritch evils that aren’t always visible to the human eye, and an unrelenting level of anguish. In those areas, the film is fairly successful.
It takes a strong spirit to be around someone else’s pain and misery all the time. Louise and Michael‘s bereft mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) has watched her husband (Michael Zagst) deteriorate before her very eyes and is now coming undone herself. She rejects stoicism and breaks down in front of her children, again and again. Soon, though, grief turns into venting, then attacking. Her son and daughter try to help, but the matriarch angrily tells them to just “go home.”
As they all wait for nature to take its course, Louise sticks to house chores and Michael tends to the farm. They ease back into childhood roles that not only keep them busy, they also remind them of times not filled with anger or sickness. The distraction doesn’t last long, however, because misfortune strikes again. Although Death has come to the farm, his first claim isn’t Louise‘s father. The circumstances surrounding this bizarre incident simply don’t add up.
Hope has left the building and it’s never coming back. With more loss pushing down on their already heavy hearts, Louise and her brother are at opposite ends of the same room. One is holding out for something that is never going to happen, and the other is perfectly aware of the inevitable. Their father’s bedridden and sickly body is close to giving out, but Louise is too consumed with her own personal guilt to see the bigger picture. It stands to reason she feels an immeasurable amount of shame for staying away as long as she did. On the other hand, Michael has his own family to take care of; he sees there is only so much he can do here.
There is a supernatural, almost Faustian element in the movie that comes and goes as it pleases. It’s a dastardly character that plays tricks on people in order to get whatever it wants. This seemingly omnipotent force seeks out what everyone cherishes and has insight into their minds. Tracing back to the movie’s awareness of today’s horror trends, the inclusion of a nearly godlike, intangible evil targeting a select group of people isn’t exactly novel. That being said, Bertino’s script isn’t too forthright with the villain’s origin, so audiences are left asking all the right questions. It is refreshing to see something so malefic do what comes natural without also spoon-feeding audiences excessive answers.
We seek comfort in the knowable and we’re drawn to the familiar, but Bryan Bertino’s The Dark and the Wicked is maybe too opportune for its own good. The film doesn’t turn the ongoing subgenre of pitch-black “post-horror” on its head, and it doesn’t avoid the emerging clichés. Even so, the director’s attention to atmosphere is astute. He took notice of what’s affecting people on a visceral level in complex horror right now, and he repurposed it with competence. What Bertino ultimately delivers is a time capsular movie with an enduring, if not routine, story.
“[Bertino’s] attention to atmosphere is astute. He took notice of what’s affecting people on a visceral level in complex horror right now, and he repurposed it with competence.”
The Dark and the Wicked had its International premiere at 2020 Fantasia Fest. Read all of our coverage of the festival here, and join the conversation with the Nightmare on Film Street community over on Twitter, Reddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!