Directed by Bryan Bertino
Written by Bryan Bertino
Starring Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr., Xander Berkeley
Director Bryan Bertino is already an established name in horror mainly due to the phenomenal success of his tied-to-a-chair home invasion thriller The Strangers starring a terrified but resourceful Liv Tyler. The roadside when animals attack creature feature The Monster boasting fantastic effects work from the legendary team of Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gilis, is an effective exercise in suspense and serves as Bertino’s visceral version of Stephen King’s Cujo. Watching the world premiere of his latest unshakable triumph, The Dark and The Wicked, it’s clear that Bertino has succeeded in crafting a near masterstroke of horror – one that’s sure to be a standout at this year’s Fantasia International Film Fest and a film likely to be on a lot of Top 10 lists once 2020 is finally put out to pasture.
Right from the start, there’s already some kind of presence hovering over a deteriorating family somewhere out in the middle of Nowhere, Texas. Deathly ill and drawing his last breaths in a sweltering bedroom upstairs, something seems to be accelerating the condition of Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael’s (Michael Abbot, Jr.) father to the point where he’s practically wasting away before their eyes. Understandably, they’re a little more worried about Mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) who’s somewhere beyond grief in a realm of her own, as if she’s listening to a whisper that’s growing louder and louder every night. (Watching her dangerously chopping vegetables early on is distressing to say the least and the building anticipation is evidence of Bertino’s confident touch). Trying their best to keep the growing horrors at bay, Louise and Michael continue to tend to Dad and the incredibly creepy sheep on the farm until unspeakable visions begin to take hold and tear them apart. With the help of a devout Nurse (Lynn Andrews) and a peculiar Priest (Xander Berkeley) channeling Kane from Poltergeist II, the bonds of family stay in tact just long enough to push back against a malicious force that may prove to be an insurmountable evil that love cannot overcome.
The first clear indicator that The Dark and The Wicked is working at an elevated clip comes out of the truly hair raising sound design bringing the moanful wails of sheep and late night warning bells blowing in the wind to the forefront. Echoing across the rural countryside, the soundtrack of this family farm changes from the familiar to the foreboding, serving as a harbinger of things to come. It’s pure atmosphere that invites the hypnotic choruses beginning to creep into the ears of Louise and Michael to amplify. Lance Hoffman’s sound mix earns a character credit, itself, and only increases the unease of Tom Schraeder’s score filled with devilish fiddles and singing saws. The bleating cries of the sheep crawl under the skin with enough penetrating fear that it would be more than enough to make Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs run for the hills.
The kids stay, however, even when it’s clear that they should have heeded their mother’s words, “You should never have come.” Growing more terrified as the days of the week tick by (the same calendar trope from The Shining is used to good effect), apparitions start to make visits causing the steadfast siblings to begin unraveling. Marin Ireland and Micheal Abbot, Jr. are placed on the emotional roller coaster Bertino’s script provides but, past a certain point, they are only headed straight down at alarming speeds. The desperation and growing flirtation with insanity beams through in their performances as both actors, in service to the characters, find themselves crawling on the ground fighting through fiery tears, snotty sobs and involuntary gags brought on by the subjected horrors they’re meant to suffer through to defend the soul of the patriarch.
The horror is unrelenting but in that wide-eyed, mouth agape sort of way; not in the so terrifying you’re watching through your hands kind of way. One reason for this is the Wicked is not a personification of grief or a representative of something metaphorical. Executed at a high level across the board, this is not an elevated genre film claiming the pseudo intellectual descriptor of “post horror.” This is an outright horror film rooted in the classics that clearly define the battle between good and evil. Something quite real and demonic is after the soul of the father and will create the most inconceivable horrors, whether real or imagined, in order to make the soul more vulnerable. The scares are often rooted in waking nightmares but there is a level of verisimilitude that’s in-your-face and undeniably powerful.
Whatever’s feeding on the family runs on the fuel of fear. Once the love for each other is eaten away at, the fear grows greater making the taste even sweeter. Not knowing what’s real and what isn’t winds up being the most powerful tool in its arsenal. One unspeakable scene, in particular, is even more disturbing once you see the confused realization of what it’s like to be trapped in a mirage that’s suddenly lifted, leading to unfathomable levels of despair. It’s the scene that will most likely stay with you after watching, but it’s done so masterfully that the tragedy doesn’t outweigh the true horror transpiring. That’s the main reason why Bertino gets things so right with The Dark and The Wicked. The direction walks the line between terror and tragedy but always makes the right turn back into the world of horror.
Playing with the ideas of possession, astral projection, and demonism, the manifestation of the Wicked enjoys toying with those tortured by the past but it’s never a trickster. Whatever it is has no intention of playing around with its subjects and Bertino doesn’t either. While left somewhat open-ended, it’s done for effect and doesn’t feel underdeveloped. That’s mainly why The Dark and the Wicked lingers because your left with tragedy instead of answers. As their father’s nurse says as she pleads with Michael to believe in the unexplainable, there are so many different kinds of evil and they all want desperately to come in.
With The Dark and the Wicked, writer director Bryan Bertino reaches new heights as a horror filmmaker, using the backdrop of a small Texas farm to tell a truly frightening story about a family struggling to keep its soul.