The Dark and the Wicked Review

A farmhouse shadowed in the late sun. Wiregrass strangling the perimeter. Homemade wind chimes rustling in the thin whistling air. A flock of still, silent sheep suddenly jump and kick as if startled by an imaginary foe. Darkness sets in, pitch black, like soot and ash resting where warmth once stood. There is a presence here, in the dark, in the night, and it weighs heavy on every soul unfortunate enough to call this place home.

Themes of loss and isolation hit different in a pandemic. Quarantined at home, our fellow man dropping like flies all around us, falling prey to an unseen force that is both fatal and unstoppable. Writer/director Bryan Bertino may have set his latest film The Dark and the Wicked in the same Texas town where he grew up, but in a year marked by plague and absence, it’s hard not to relate to two lonely young people descending into madness in a quiet cabin in the middle of nowhere, waiting for their father to finally pass, terrified that his affliction might come for them next.

Starring Marin Ireland as Louise and Michael Abbot Jr. as her brother Michael, The Dark and the Wicked tells the story of two siblings who return to their childhood home in rural Texas to say goodbye to their bedridden father when he falls ill. Their visit clearly upsets their mother, who is already crumbling under the weight of her husband’s ailment. Lost in the throes of her own grief, she takes her own life shortly after their arrival. And yet, her voice still echoes in the house. She calls her daughter on the phone. She appears to Michael indecent and smiling wide in the barn. She told them not to come. They should’ve listened.

A few hours spent alone in this place and it’s clear that whatever devil is lurking in the shadows didn’t just pick a family at random. These halls were haunted long before any malevolent entity cascaded its way down into the patriarch’s quarters. This is a family that has been rotting from the inside out for years, the disconnect between them growing vast over time, running deep like a canyon. There was already blood in the water, and something insidious just followed the scent.

The family’s caretaker admits that she’s noticed strange things afoot. The mother talking to herself. The father’s inexplicably weakening state. Even the air feels thick and heavy, as if a curse were placed upon on their shoulders. She thinks Louise and Michael’s disbelief in a higher power surely means they’re doomed, but it’s not so much organized religion that they lack. It’s a loss of community. Their parents failed them, but not because they didn’t take their kids to church. This house has cracks in the foundation. Like mildew that’s moldering, the echoes of familial abandonment still wreak havoc in the hearts and the souls of these weary patrons, the oppression of their seclusion made palpable. There’s nothing anchoring these kin to one another, no deeper bond than the blood they share. These are lonely people, and to a predator looking for easy prey, two kids desperately attempting to reconnect after years of negligence prove just vulnerable enough to find themselves caught in the crosshairs.

Marin Ireland packs a powerhouse performance as the youngest of the clan, left to fend for herself time and time again. The trepidation with which she approaches one ghastly, soul-shattering event after another strikes fear into even the most jaded of hearts. Make no mistake about it, The Dark and the Wicked is by far the scariest movie at the Fantasia Film Festival, and its due in large part to Ireland’s neurotic catatonia. You find yourself holding your breath, waiting to see what spine-chilling event hovers just ahead, hiding behind a dark corner.

Bryan Bertino has outdone himself with his latest project, which is easily his most accomplished work yet. Whereas The Strangers was a game of cat and mouse that never really pays off, The Dark and the Wicked wastes no time digging in to the deepest corners of our psyche and extracting and making real our most intimate nightmares. The messiness and discomfort of death. Parents made ghoulish in their dementia. The ghosts of lost loved ones whispering into our ears at night, the past coming back to haunt us one hallucination at a time. Our eternal punishment for our inability to let go. For coming together a little too late.

Devastatingly nihilistic and fear-inducing from the very first frame, cinematographer Tristan Nyby’s camerawork fills the film with a chilling atmosphere, one that keeps its viewers at a distance and reeks of yearning and despair. While some movies set in the south might come across as a series of clichés, almost reminiscent of a caricature, in Bertino’s latest, the remote setting actually lends to the heightened tension. Bolstered by the fact that the director shot this feature in his hometown, on his parents’ very own farm, the barren landscape influences the unease with which the characters regard one another, their flesh as haunted as the house in which they reside. By returning to his deep southern roots, Bertino stirs up a unique Texas ghost story, the aura in each frame radiating potent authenticity. Scott Colquitt’s ominous set design pairs well with Ashley Landavazo’s quaint art direction to create an overall sense of dread that hangs in the air like a crescent moon. Bucolic rusty horseshoes adorn yellowing wallpaper. Skulls from cattle and foxes and wolves and the like decorate wood paneled archways, lit up through faded curtains, their punctured faces playing at picturesque pastoral pastures, their hollow grins giving way to the eerie essence hiding out.

Tom Schraeder’s disquieting score adds a point of emphasis to each scare, making mangled fingers and floating figures feel tangible to the point of visceral unease. It’s hard not to be pulled into the terror alongside the family, feeling their pain, fearing for their safety. It’s hard not to see the same empty eyes that taunted the siblings in their sleep staring up at you in the dark after the end credits roll. 

A broken family ostracized from the world. An invisible intruder who takes them one by one. An order to shelter in place, no matter the horror that presents itself unabashedly in the silence. Cabin fever. Solitude. Anxiety. Bertino has chosen a perfect time to deliver a movie about the dangers of detachment and it’s one you won’t want to miss – even if it does hit a little too close to home. 

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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About the Author

Kalyn Corrigan is a writer who regularly contributes to such sites as Birth.Movies.Death, Collider, Bloody Disgusting, Vulture, ComingSoon, and Playboy.