Film Review: The Dark and the Wicked (2020),
Bleak and atmospheric, Bertino knows what he's aiming for.
The family has been an important component of horror cinema. Most horror films derive (and provide) pleasure from perverting or simply destroying safe little units we call homes to invoke the fear of the unknown.
Most of the time, a family member in jeopardy is just a plot point but increasingly filmmakers are plumbing the depths of what it means to 'stick around' and 'be there'. You are born with your family and no matter the horrors they hold, they are yours.
Mike Flanagan's masterpiece The Haunting of Hill House posits the eponymous house as a family member that you cannot escape, just like the siblings can't shake off one another. In Relic (reviewed here), the decision to own up and commit holds terrifying possibilities.
Like Flanagan, Bryan Bertino knows how to emotionally ground his horror in real emotion. But Bertino's vision is bleaker and meaner. This works to both to his benefit and detriment.
The Dark and the Wicked opens with a Prologue that does not make the nature of the threat clear. We get some stylish, atmospheric shots of a woman on a farm. It is a testament to the rich atmosphere that Bertino creates that the danger still feels palpable.
The plot is simple: siblings Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) arrive at their farm to take care of their dying father (Michael Zagst). Their mother Julie Oliver-Touchstone repeatedly tells them that they should not have come. Soon they start feeling that a menacing force is gathering strength.
Bertino chooses not to provide any backstory and encourages the audience to look at everyone else except the siblings as stereotypes - father, mother, nurse, priest, etc. None of these other characters have names in the film making it clear that this is about the sister and brother. It is about their crisis of faith, beliefs, and commitment to their family.
This is also where the film falters.
Though they are the central characters, there is hardly any background given to explain to us where they are coming from, what their aspirations are and what painful memories of childhood they share, if any. Had these characters been given some depth, this would have been Bertino's best yet. In Strangers, his debut also there is no detailed background, but we get emotionally involved and feel we know both the characters because we have seen the chemistry between them. The initial fight reveals enough to create tension between the characters. The Dark and the Wicked is devoid of any information such as this. While this works in keeping the audience on edge, the overall effect is muted and the film is not as haunting or effective as it could have been.
Like Relic can be read as a metaphor for dementia, The Dark and the Wicked with its suicides and mood can be seen as a metaphor for the legacy of depression.
Both Ireland and Abbot Jr. give excellent performances, using what they have to create sympathetic characters. Julie Oliver-Touchstone haunts as the mother. The supporting cast makes the best of their roles and depicts an underlying sadness.
Bertino's film could have been better but it is still one of the better horror films of the year. a reminder that he is an important voice working in horror today.