As someone who has enjoyed all of Bryan Bertino’s directorial output over the years, with The Strangers being one of my favorite modern horrors of all-time, The Dark and the Wicked might just be Bertino’s greatest cinematic achievement to date. A masterful exploration of grief and faith that often ratchets up the tension to unimaginable levels, The Dark and the Wicked is one of the most confidently crafted horror films of 2020, and is easily one of the best that this year has to offer as well. It takes a lot for a film to crawl right up under my skin, but The Dark and the Wicked did it with minimal effort, and it left me shaken and unsettled by the time the credits rolled around.
At the start of the film, a pair of siblings – Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) – return home to the family farm, as their father (Michael Zagst) lay dying and their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) is clearly not coping well with the impending loss of her beloved spouse. Her children think that their mother’s struggles and sadness stems from their father’s terminal state, but there’s something far more sinister weighing on her heart, and they are shocked to discover that there’s something very evil that has taken a stronghold on their family. Both Louise and Michael are unsure of just what can be done to stave off the malevolent force at the heart of The Dark and the Wicked that is not only threatening both their lives, but has put their parent’s souls in jeopardy as well.
From its opening moments, The Dark and the Wicked immediately sets a tone of apprehension, where it feels like there is some unseen element that has a stranglehold on everything and everyone and something feels “off,” but you can’t quite put your finger on exactly what is wrong until it’s too late. Bertino never once lets up the throttle either, continually building a sense of creeping dread that goes far beyond the all-consuming feelings of sorrow that comes with watching someone you love slip away.
The way Bertino establishes a general feeling of uneasiness here works two-fold: it works tangentially with that feeling of hopelessness that comes while you have to watch someone close to you die, and knowing that their end is bound to come around sooner than later. But beyond that, there is a feeling of unnaturalness to The Dark and the Wicked as well, where there’s obviously something supernatural at play, but these characters have no idea just how to cope or deal with such a malignant entity.
It’s also worth mentioning that both the cinematography from DP Tristan Nyby and the film’s sound design help heighten everything that Bertino has laid out in The Dark and the Wicked, with the results being an experience that left my nerves rattled more than once.
As great as Bertino’s script for The Dark and the Wicked is, another key component to why the film works as well as it does is due to the performances from Ireland and Abbott Jr. who provide the emotional anchor to this story, and their character’s reactions to everything that is happening around them feels wholly authentic (I seriously had to think about just what I would do if someone I loved was dying but demonic forces were afoot – would I stay or would I go? The answers aren’t so easy, as it turns out). Ireland’s character Louise that is put through the ringer the most in The Dark and the Wicked, and I think she does an incredible job here of making her terror and confusion feel relatable and palpable all the same.
Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Xander Berkeley’s role as a mysterious priest in The Dark and the Wicked, as it not only provides the film with one of the best “Holy Shit” moments, but his performance at times rivals Julian Beck as Reverend Kane in Poltergeist II, in terms of just downright eerie and menacing he is. So damn good.
An expertly paced excursion that plunges us as viewers into the deepest recesses of our own worst fears that finds ways to masterfully exploit them, The Dark and the Wicked packs a wallop and it’s a film that I haven’t been able to shake off for days now. Bertino has proven over time that he knows exactly how to leave audiences stripped down to their core, and his latest achieves that and then some. While exploring grief in genre storytelling isn’t something new, especially with the release of films like Hereditary and Relic over the last several years, The Dark and the Wicked effectively demonstrates why emotionally-driven horror is often the most potent way to explore what truly scares us most.
Movie Score: 4.5/5