Writer-director Bryan Bertino is an expert at making minimalist horror films about two people trapped by evil forces in remote locations. 'The Strangers' dealt with a young couple whose lake house is invaded by silent psychopaths, whereas 'The Monster' explored the relationship between an abusive mother and her child after they are trapped in their car by a fanged mutant. A familiar formula told with intense conviction, Bertino's latest, 'The Dark and the Wicked', depicts two adult lives caught in the undertow of family tragedy and supernatural shenanigans.
Louise (Marin Ireland, 'Piercing', 'The Irishman') has just returned to the rural Texas farm where she was raised; her father (Michael Zagst) is on his deathbed and her mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) is struggling to cope. Louise is joined by her brother Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.), who has a young family waiting for him back in suburbia. From the start, this gloomy and forbidding plot of farmland, hauntingly evoked in Tristan Nyby's lean cinematography and Tom Schraeder's chilling score, is - despite the sibling's best efforts - a place of death nested inside other deaths.
While Louise and Michael get their bearings on the farm, their mother shows signs of her many years caring for a deteriorating spouse. Her children are confused by the collection of crucifixes around the house, gathered by a woman who's not particularly religious. As it turns out, their mother is convinced that something demonic is making her husband sick. Unfortunately, the man's condition is so delicate that his family can't move him to a hospital.
The progressively more unkempt Ireland ramps up the anxiety as a woman haunted by loneliness and helplessness, moving around every room as if constantly anticipating an assault. Abbott Jr vividly communicates Michael's maelstrom of emotions when the hauntings escalate from mere suggestion to a spectre on the front lawn. Separated from society (aside from an elderly farmhand, a concerned nurse and a strange priest), there's nothing to stop the incessant wind from blowing dark thoughts into the household, through the cracks in its timber frame.
Bertino atmospherically evokes this emptiness, sometimes at the cost of the film's pacing, but the moments that work the best are the ones where he lets the narrative pulse slow down so that the audience can hear the ominous whistle and groan of the wind, the faint creak of a floorboard, and the tinkling of wind chimes. Sure, there are a few white-eyed fiends and satanic growls, too, but it's the silence that speaks volumes in 'The Dark and the Wicked'.
I am a huge sucker for horror films that evoke an awful feeling of apprehension when you know something bad is going to happen. It's a common feature of the ghost story, where the house is clearly haunted but the ghouls take time to reveal themselves. As Hitchcock says, "There is no terror in the bang, only the anticipation of it".
Dread can come from within the story itself, such as the many warnings about Hill House at the start of 'The Haunting', or technical elements such as extended Steadicam shots, which eke out the tension before a big reveal. In 'The Shining', the longer Danny wheels around the corridors in those insinuating, unbroken takes, the more we're scared of what lurks around the next corner. Bertino is faithful to the terror of the unknown and unknowable, and while horror films have long served as catharsis for our innate fear of death, Bertino's film yields only sheer dread - a dread that grows with the understanding of just how inescapable it is.
Many of the film's shots and scenes go on several beats longer than expected, just to stoke a near-unbearable feeling of anticipation and foreboding.
There are a couple of visual effects-heavy moments (like a finger amputation identical to the one in 'The Grudge') where 'The Dark and the Wicked' brushes subtlety aside and nearly turns into 'Dark River' as interpreted by the director of 'Insidious'. However, these scenes almost come as a relief, since many of the film's shots and scenes go on several beats longer than expected, just to stoke a near-unbearable feeling of anticipation and foreboding.
'The Dark and the Wicked' shares some of the same themes as Natalie Erika James' 'Relic', while the elusiveness of the film's boogieman brings to mind Na Hong-jin's 'The Wailing'. The setting makes the film feel like a spiritual sequel to Emma Tammi's feminist homesteader horror 'The Wind', in the way that it equates the exterior bleakness of the American heartland with an interior sense of fermenting hysteria. Coupled with this expert use of its oppressive location, Bertino's film manages to overcome any narrative inertia (there is never any explanation as to why this chaos is happening) via sheer force of will.
The scariest new film that I've seen in 2020, 'The Dark and the Wicked' is well-crafted, moodily evocative, and best watched through one's fingers.