Over ten years ago, Bryan Bertino made waves with his bleak debut, The Strangers, which set a high bar for home invasion horror. His subsequent films confirmed his trademark style- nihilistic horror uninterested in tidy answers and happy endings. His latest, The Dark and the Wicked, harkens back to his debut in terms of pessimism, simplicity, and estranged relationships. Perhaps most importantly, it’s just as ruthless in crafting intense atmosphere and potent scares.
Tucked away at a remote, rural farm sits an eerie old cabin style house. Inside lives an elderly couple, but the man is dying of an illness. It hangs heavy over the house. Relegated to his bed and no longer conscious, his wife is alone at night with the darkness. The couple’s adult children, Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.), put their lives on hold to spend the week with their dying father, but straightaway feel the unease that permeates the home. Their mother is angry that they’ve come, having warned them to stay away, and that they’ve all drifted apart over the years adds to the disquiet. It becomes evident soon enough that their mother’s warnings to stay away stem from an evil within the home, growing bolder and more disconcerting by the day.
Writer/director Bertino tends to use horror to accentuate and explore the empty space between friends, lovers, and family that have drifted apart for various reasons. For siblings Louise and Michael, they struggle through the guilt that comes with the inability to remember the last time they called home, and the remorse that their mother has been left alone to care for her dying husband. Death looms large, a heavy presence with no straightforward guide. The detachment between them only compounds the awkwardness of their forced pleasantries and unspoken confessions. It’s in the distance between this family – their grief and desperation for a last-minute miracle- that wickedness takes root. And boy does Bertino know how to create unsettling evil that will embed itself deep under your skin and leave you searching for the light switch.
The film wastes no time plummeting its characters straight into occult terror’s deep depths, ramping it up at a steady, nightmarish clip. Harrowing visions, unnerving creaks and groans in the old house, shadow play along the walls, and oppressive energy quickly gives way to violence. Bertino knows when to use restraint and when to open the flood gates of visceral horror. The filmmaker plays around with the familiar conventions of occult horror, reconfiguring the age-old crises of faith and demonic imagery into something personal and unpredictable. There’s an insidious entity lying in wait, as eager to toy with its prey as it is to eviscerate them. There’s a level of palpable dread and danger here not easily achieved.
Ireland and Abbott Jr. are tremendous, giving layered performances to a pair of siblings raised in rural solitude. Much of Louise and Michael’s communication is nonverbal, the depth of emotion made evident in their expressions and physicality. They create a textured family dynamic that makes this home feel as lived in as it looks. Look for Xander Berkeley (Candyman) to appear in a small supporting role as a priest so off-putting that he instantly makes you uncomfortable. Some of the minor supporting performances don’t fare as strongly, but some of the stiltedness is part of the atmospheric point.
The Dark and the Wicked is rife with suffocating dread, disturbing visuals, and a haunting atmosphere. It’s a simple film in its design and aesthetic, which works well in the film’s favor. The horror is intrinsic to a family coping with grief and loss, but it’s heightened to a horrifying degree thanks to Bertino’s distinct style and his twisted vision of evil. It makes for a volatile, frightening viewing experience steeped in nihilism.