“There’s nothing worse than a soul left alone in the end…”
...Loneliness cripples us all. It festers deep down beneath our flesh, growing like a cancer and creeping into our minds when we least expect it. That feeling of simply existing, alone with nothing in the dark shadows but your own thoughts can be frightening. Because there’s no one there to pick yourself up but you. Most of the time, we’re strong enough to fight through that feeling. But sometimes, that feeling manifests into something worse. Something evil. Something which writer/director Bryan Bertino explored in his latest, The Dark and the Wicked, now available on Blu-ray and still one of the scariest films of the year as we near the end of 2020.
Bertino first came onto the scene with the stunning terror that was The Strangers (2008), forcing audiences to accept the cruel reality that sometimes, bad things happen for no reason other than you were home when said bad things came strolling through. The Dark and the Wicked explores a similar concept through the supernatural, following Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbot Jr.), two siblings who return home after a long time away to see their parents. Their father (Michael Zagst) is bedridden and rotting away, and after an accident with their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone), Louise and Michael are forced to take care of their father. But they soon learn that there is something evil in the house hungry for a few souls.
Bertino propels us directly into a setting of rustic horror, with mother sewing in a dark room, surrounded by silent mannequins and composer Tom Schraeder’s score building to a crescendo of uneasy dread that never, ever leaves the frame. Drenched in cold, sepia tones, the farmhouse where the film takes place feels out of another time. A place where technology is out of date or non-existent (where’s the TV?), the skulls of cattle hang over doorways with watchful eyes, and shadows fill the background, a technique which consistently drew my eyes to every corner, searching and finding nothing…except for the few heart-clenching moments when I did.
From the beginning, The Dark and the Wicked conjures up vibes of recent horror films that could best be described as dread incarnate, such as The Witch and Hereditary, feeling like a sinister child born of the two. Everywhere the camera turns, old doors creak. Winds howl. And our characters feel completely and utterly alone, despite civilization not too far off.
Louise and Michael are two people who feel familiar, because for many of you reading this, they are us. While we don’t get much background on the two, we know Louise hasn’t been around for a long time, and Michael barely comes by anymore, focused on his own family. Both have left the farm life and want nothing to do with it. More importantly, they seem to want little to do with their family. In a time where we either can’t be there for family or simply don’t want to be, it’s a familiar feeling that resonates.
As mother says when the kids first arrive, “your daddy said to keep working, so that’s what we do. Day after day.” Michael and Louise are put into a position of guilt over having not been there, and that guilt becomes an obligation following an incident that will have me never looking at carrots the same way again, leaving the two to take care of their father. Ireland and Abbott Jr. each deliver performances racked with pain and discomfort. Uncomfortable with the house, each other, and especially their own dad.
Bertino employs all sorts of tactics meant to scare the ever-loving shit out of the audience. Cinematographer Tristan Nyby uses slow, careful moments to quietly open up the space of the scene, pulling the viewer to the edge of their seat in anticipation of the inevitable horror to be revealed. Visions of white-eyed ghosts haunt the scene, often accompanied by the wailing of the farm’s goats. Jump scares occur at just the right moments, never over-powering the viewer but instead working into a perfect cocktail of screams, including one moment that may be the scariest shower scene since Psycho. Horror in showers. It gets me every time.
Most terrifying of all though is the unrelenting mystery of the evil which plagues The Dark and the Wicked. The thing in The Dark and the Wicked alternates between ghosts and brief glimpses of beastly forms, not oooo-ing and aaaaaaah-ing the way a ghost might, but instead growling with the echoes of the damned bubbling up from its mouth. Ghosts might make you turn the light on, but the evil in The Dark and the Wicked will wreck you.
At one point, Michael utters “it aint going to make sense, ever.” And it doesn’t, not really. The not knowing is what gets under the skin with this film. Not knowing means there’s no easy answer on the internet. Ed and Lorraine Warren aren’t showing up to save the day. And the only reason it’s after you may simply be because you were home. As Marin states in the interview on the disc, Bertino referred to the concept as this thing, whatever it is, can “smell blood in the water” amongst this family. And god, what a chilling thought that is.
The Dark and the Wicked is a gut-punch of a film that rips the heart out and savors each bite because it can. There is no happiness in this film, just an overwhelming sense of grief, and so unless you’re into torturing yourself with film, The Dark and the Wicked may not be one you revisit often. But without a doubt, this is Bertino’s masterpiece.
Which is why the Blu-ray is ultimately disappointing. Here, we have Bertino’s greatest work yet, and while the single feature involving ex-Fangoria editor Tony Timpone interviewing stars Marin Ireland and Michael Abbot Jr. during Fantasia over webcams is interesting in its own right, it feels like something is missing without Bertino’s thoughts on the film. What I and others would give for a commentary on what is a deeply personal film from Bertino, as Marin mentions in the interview. Both Marin and Michael provide a ton of insight into their roles and their views on horror, making the interview one worth listening to for any fan of the film. And as best they can, the two reference Bertino and his thoughts enough to almost make us feel like he's there, so there's that.
Still, for those who prefer physical media, The Dark and the Wicked is worth the buy, if only for the masterful film itself. The Dark and the Wicked is now available on Blu-ray/DVD from RLJE Films. Check out the special features below.
By Matt Konopka