In 2008, Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers made us afraid to stay home. His new horror film takes that fear to newer, darker places.
It’s not immediately obvious what kind of twisted themes are at play in The Dark and the Wicked, the latest horror film from writer and director Bryan Bertino. The film’s weary, drawn-out prologue isn’t exactly representative of the film’s slightly quicker pace later on, but there’s a clear purpose behind this film’s initial slow burn. Similar to Chantal Akerman’s perennial Jeanne Dielman (1975), Bertino’s new crisis horror about the traumas of suicide makes its case by forcing you to dwell in its silence, at least for a spell.
The film opens with the aging, unnamed matriarch (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) of an empty nest out in the middle of nowhere, a heartland location sure to prime fans of the genre for the isolated scares to come. Her similarly unnamed husband (Michael Zagst) is on his death bed, hooked up to medical treatment, and unable to respond to his environment. Unable to deal properly with this impending conclusion, “mother” finds herself contemplating another way out, almost as if an invisible specter is guiding her hand to end it all in the most sinister fashion.
Picking up the pieces are their two children, Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.), who find themselves more estranged than not with their parents’ more humble, quiet lives. Over the course of just a week, the siblings contend with the haunting presence of what could be a possession, or perhaps a traditional haunting, who’s to say? The Dark and the Wicked doesn’t care to provide any easy answers, nor does it offer much in the way of grief counseling.
In fact, it’s incidentally of a piece with Natalie Erika James’s Relic, another festival indie film from earlier this year, which did a wonderful job communicating the trauma and necessity of caring for our elders, specifically in how it tackles the responsibility children must face when the reality of old age becomes an affliction upon their parents. By contrast, The Dark and the Wicked is quite sloppy when it comes to its thematic storytelling. There’s quite a jumble of ideas to sift through by the end credits, and though audiences won’t necessarily strain to achieve the film’s overarching point, they may find themselves paining over the journey to get there, especially as the scares become weaker in their repetition.
On a technical level, The Dark and the Wicked is quite journeyman-like in its approach. Bertino weighs his film’s muted, gritty location against some horrific practical effects. It’s a solid balance, and Tristan Nyby’s cinematography does well to capture a constant twilight of colors, making every scene, day or night, equally frightening. Bertino’s script isn’t always brought to its full potential, here, but Ireland and Abbott Jr. sell their shorthand dialogue, despite not having all that much to say.
It’s just unfortunate that The Dark and the Wicked saves its boldest, most brazen moments for merely the beginning and the very end, and it arguably peaks in the first half-hour with the culmination of a chopping scene that is sure to spark new nightmares for horror fans. Sadly, it otherwise limps along with its family backstories and missed opportunities involving a deranged priest (Xander Berkeley), who deserves far more screen time.
Bertino’s new crisis horror about the traumas of suicide makes its case by forcing you to dwell in its silence, at least for a spell.
Though it’s not always consistent in its highs, the film certainly revels in what it does best, and that’s producing the type of cringe horror Bertino has become known for despite his somewhat limited scope of work as a director. There is a pessimistic and even nihilistic attitude he brings to this story, which somehow feels both throwback and novel. While his contemporaries have been striving to infuse more hope and religious self-actualization in their scripts, Bertino seems content to wash his audience with unrelenting, godless darkness.
For many who might check this one out years down the road, I can think of few other films that capture just the pure dread and isolation of 2020. Especially when it comes to the callous disregard of hundreds of thousands of elderly death in America this past year. Perhaps The Dark and the Wicked will do well to remind them why these lives always did matter.
The Dark and the Wicked is currently available in theaters, digital and on demand.