A remote, isolated farm; a dying family patriarch; estranged adult children; a mentally unravelling mother; wolves. The Dark and the Wicked, the new movie from The Strangers director Bryan Bertino, is just one horror story red flag after another. Leaning hard on mood and atmosphere, the result is a creepy, visceral horror tale that sticks around in a deep, hidden place.
Calling it a modern-era take on The Witch doesn’t seem quite accurate, nor does it give the film its due—it certainly stands on its own merits. Still, that’s a recurring thought I had watching the debut at the Fantasia Film Festival. And there are similarities. Slow-building terror that mounts throughout; an ominous, almost oppressive tone; and goats. There’s a less overt, omnipresent religious strand, though it’s there, and a lurking, looming dread as a unseen, unknown evil hovers just out of clear view. Something bad is going to happen, and waiting for it is the best kind of torture.
With her father on the verge of death, Louise (Marin Ireland) and her brother Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) return to their family’s hardscrabble Texas farm to mourn and say goodbye. As the mother comes unglued, it becomes clear something malicious (something dark and wicked perhaps?) haunts the family.
Bertino’s crafty script carefully escalates the tension and pressure. At first, the siblings think it’s grief that torments their mother, and they pass off small, seemingly insignificant things. After all, this is an old farm house, the electricity fritzes out sometimes, doors creak on rusty hinges, wolves constantly howl in the distance. Even before the situation devolves into a tussle with dark forces, it’s all sinister undercurrents, unsettling in the pit of your stomach. It doesn’t hurt that you feel Tom Schraeder’s eerie, subtle string score creep up your spine.
The Dark and the Wicked hits an especially raw terror spot when it toys with reality and perception. Few things are as frightening as not being able to believe your own eyes, your own mind. When the characters experience hallucinations, waking nightmares the feel so, so real, they fray at the edges, afraid to trust even themselves and their own senses.
Louise and Michael have their histories and drives and secrets, but the script is judicious about what it doles out. They, and the whole family, have obvious strife in their past, but the film rarely spends time on the specifics, giving us just enough without overwhelming with every last detail. What’s most important is that there is lingering damage, that it impacts their current state, and how they contend with it right here, right now. And what the audience first believes are deep seeded family issues, develops into something much more threatening. The meaning of their mothers words, “You shouldn’t be here” and “I told you not to come,” take on much more relevance beyond interpersonal drama.
Ireland captures Louise’s initial discomfort, harried an on edge. A sensation that gradually evolves into dread and then full-blown terror, plucking at her anxieties. Abbott Jr. plays Michael as the dutiful son, as well as husband and father, who, like his sister, crumbles as the Wicked picks and chips away at what he holds most dear. The script does a nice job building the protagonist’s investment and subsequently dismantling them, and the two lead actors put in strong, grounded work. And the great Xander Berkeley shows up as a creepy priest, always a welcome addition to any movie.
The general bleakness of The Dark and the Wicked will surely turn away some viewers—there’s not much room for optimism or hope here, and it borders on oppressive. But despite the grim desolation, or perhaps because of it, Bertino’s supernatural horror, filtered through the lens of familial grief and trauma, is perhaps the most truly terrifying film of the year. [Grade: A-]