One of the first horror films I ever saw during its release time was Bryan Bertino’s 2008 home-invasion thriller, The Strangers. I will always have the distinct memory of watching it at my best friend’s house after a July 4th barbecue had calmed down and the kids had separated from the adults. I was 11 years old, and my home being broken into was my biggest fear imaginable. Needless to say, The Strangers fucked me up at that age, but it’s a film that I have carried with me through the years not only as a show of nostalgia, but as a prime example of a lean, mean, simple film with a wonderfully straightforward approach to horror. It’s a film that holds up to this day with a surprisingly good sequel as well. Since then, Bertino has taken on two other films, a straight to DVD Blumhouse horror, Mockingbird (which I have not seen), and the excellently minimalist 2016 A24 creature-feature, The Monster, starring Zoe Kazan. Premiering his new film exclusively here at Fantasia Fest in advance of its November Shudder release, Bertino takes on an entirely new monster this time around: family.
Louise (Marin Ireland) is a young woman returning to her childhood family farm in rural Texas, alongside her brother, Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.), to visit her dying father (Michael Zagst). Upon arrival, they notice that aside from their father’s weakened state of disease, their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) is exhibiting strange and paranoid behavior around the subject of their father. As the week slowly trudges on, Louise and Michael begin to experience the horrors of an unseen force surrounding their childhood home, attempting to take all that it touches.
On paper, The Dark and the Wicked sounds a lot like another 2020 horror film, Relic, in its basic premise, but once the initial setup is complete, the two films couldn’t feel more different. While Relic explored the process of aging through the guise of supernatural horror, The Dark and the Wicked is an aptly titled film that focuses on the destruction of norms based on human suffering. It is a film that pulls no punches and gives zero fucks about your feelings. It’s truly a wicked film that is not for the faint of heart. Needless to say, I found a lot of enjoyment in it.
Ireland puts her entire back into this performance, detailing a character going through the stages of grief and terror at different intervals as the film’s horrific events drone on. There’s a groundedness to her fear and pain that brings out the horror of the film to a gut-wrenching degree. It’s not a performance that gives much way for emotional range, given that she shows up depressed and leaves horrified, but there’s a certain strength in how much abuse one person can be put through by a supernatural force, which Ireland nails here. The surrounding cast help Ireland make this central performance wonderfully intense, and it’s all strong across the board. It grounds the film and keeps many of the tropes not feel overly campy.
That, in itself, is a blessing because the film does occasionally rely on some familiar horror tropes to get the audience involved. The least I can say for them is that Bertino doesn’t use them for a “gotcha” effect, but always pulls through to deliver on either the terror or the gore that it teases. It doesn’t change their familiar nature, but it makes the tropes a bit less irritating when you use them for legitimate uses.
The style of the film is what impressed me most. Bertino has a flair for making stark, mundane environments atmospheric and creepy, much like in The Strangers and The Monster. The film gives off a slightly warmer vibe compared to that of a Debra Granik film á la Winter’s Bone or Leave No Trace, in how it incorporates both nature and the world that much of Hollywood seems to forget in the “flyover states.” He creates beautiful environments and effective spaces in the building and creates and sustains tension and unease throughout.
But slow and steady, this film is not. It doesn’t take long to realize that The Dark and the Wicked might look like a slow-burn thriller on the outside, but in its execution, it’s a dirty, gory, cruel film that many horror films are still too afraid to be at times. It’s not so straightforward that the film lacks substance, but it uses these extreme methods to deliver on said substance instead of quiet, artsy moments of introspective terror. There is value in both, but to be so completely jarred by something you didn’t expect from its opening is a fun feeling you don’t get in many horror films of late (at least not ones that do it well).
And sure, the film runs too long and has about three separate endings where the film could’ve more effectively concluded, but that doesn’t change that The Dark & The Wicked is simply horror in its purest form. It’s a film that seeks to scare, shock, and provoke in a way that makes it feel meaningful as opposed to just cheap. These scares and shocks are backed up by a wonderfully effective lead performance from Marin Ireland and enough confidence in its own storytelling that it’s hard not to feel affected by it, because even when the film sometimes tries to take the easy way out, it always brings itself back home.
Currently streaming during the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Head to the official The Dark & The Wicked festival site for more information.
In select theaters, on VOD, and digital November 6th, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.