“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 explores in his latest, The Dark and the Wicked, which just made its International Premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival.
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.
Let me just start by saying this: a lot of you love The Strangers. It’s a good film. But The Dark and the Wicked is Bertino’s most masterful work to date. Period.
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 A place where technology is out of date or non-existent (where’s the TV?), the skulls of cattle hang over doorways with watchful eyes, and shadows fill the background, a technique which consistently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 be 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.
As a big city adult myself who grew up as a kid on the farms of relatives, I have an idea what it’s like to leave the “simple life”. As a Los Angeles transplant who left my entire family about two thousand miles behind me, I have an even better idea what it’s like to feel as if you’ve abandoned family. I couldn’t be there for my stepmom’s funeral. And that’s where the terror of The Dark and the Wicked comes from: that feeling of guilt, and the relentless knowing that death is coming for the ones you love, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
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.
That discomfort isn’t something we fault them long for though, because once Louise discovers mother’s diary and begins reading about some evil she thought was in the house, it’s pretty understandable that Louise and Michael want nothing to do with the place.
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. A Priest (Xander Berkeley) which comes a few pegs short of rivaling Poltergeist II’s Kane thanks to a riveting performance from Berkeley, is posed with the fact that Louise and Michael’s parents were not religious and don’t believe in the devil that mother wrote in her diary is after her husband’s soul, to which the priest simply replies, “do you think the wolf cares if you believe he’s a wolf? Not if he finds you alone in the woods.”
No, this thing does not care, and like the wolf, whatever it is, it is plainly monstrous. 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.
The Dark and the Wicked is a gut-punch of a film that rips the heart out and savors each bite because it can. Its only flaw is that there is no happiness, 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.
The Dark and the Wicked will be available in theaters, on VOD and Digital November 6th from RLJE Films and will be coming to Shudder in 2021.
By Matt Konopka