Written and Directed by: Bryan Bertino
Starring: Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr., and Julie Oliver-Touchstone
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
She told you not to come.
People like to say the lord works in mysterious ways. Itís a small comfort with a nice sentiment because itís true. No matter what your faith is, some things are beyond our control. Shit happens. But this notion can also be unsettling: after all, if thereís a god working in mysterious ways, then surely the devil can, too. After all, mythology has often depicted him as the ultimate trickster, existing only to sew chaos for the hell of it. Heís up to his old tricks in The Dark and the Wicked, the latest conjuring of pure, primal evil from Byran Bertino, a filmmaker who still feels a bit unheralded for whatever reason. This latest one should dispel any doubts, though: Bertino should be considered one of our modern masters of horror, if only for his ability to create an oppressive sense of dread.
This time, heís haunting a family farm in rural Texas, where a pair of estranged siblings, Louise and Michael (Marin Ireland & Michael), have returned to tend to their dying father (Michael Zagst). Their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) cryptically insists that they should have stayed home. At first, it feels like protectiveness, like simply a mother not wanting their children to witness the demeaning, heartbreaking end for their father. Soon, though, itís clear that she means something else entirely because some kind of presence is haunting the farm and driving its inhabitants mad with suggestions and delusions. When Louise and Michael find themselves in its malevolent grip, they begin to wonder if theyíll ever escape their childhood home.
Far from an idyllic homestead, this farm oozes with menace. Bertino creates an impressionistic sketch of a quaint, rustic home under siege, carefully sequencing a series of eerie establishing shots of the place, its innocuous features becoming more ominous as the director turns the screws. An eerie wind creeps over the landscape, causing homemade wind chimes to clatter and an old windmill to creak as wolves bay in the distance. Goats bleat in a frenzy in a barn, scrambling around a lurking ghoul that you might miss if you blink at the wrong moment. Thereís something immediately despairing and purgatorial in its desolation: itís like Bertino has stranded us in an otherworldly ghost land. (In fact, it turns out itís just his backyard since he shot the film on his own family farm.)
Iíll be real: Iím just very into this kind of shit. I know the slow burn, atmospheric approach isnít for everyone, but thereís something about a gothic pastoral setting thatís guttural. Give me an old farm in the middle of nowhere, soaked in magic hour menace, and Iím instantly transported to autumn. It just feels like Halloween. Call it a byproduct of living out in the sticks long enough, I guess. The Dark and the Wicked only needed this to hook me: a collection of sparse but evocative imagery to create the sensation of wandering off into and some backwoods hell. Bertino obliges, then practically holds you under a sinister, bewitching spell when he opens the door into the devilís sandbox.
Whatís inside is no less oppressive. A total freakout unfolds within these rustic walls, goading the family to metaphorically pick at old wounds and to literally engage in self mutilation (letís just say youíll be extra careful the next time you cut carrots). Levity is nowhere to be found because Bertino insists on grimness: The Dark and the Wicked is a spiraling descent into despair as two siblings reckon with whatever has besieged their house as the fallout grows more inexplicable by the day. They plunge further into their grief but still tiptoe around difficult conversations. We sense that home has not felt like home for either of them for quite a while, and thereís a temptation to see this as the latest horror film that sees the genre as a gore-soaked canvas for processing grief.
And while thatís an obvious read, The Dark and the Wicked remains a little too laconic in its backstory to come into focus as an allegory or a deep rumination of the soul. Whatever has estranged this family never comes into light, and the setup of visiting a dying relative doesnít quite serve as a catalyst for the two siblings to work out the wedge between them. But thatís arguably part of the filmís devious design since Bertino presents The Dark and the Wicked as a puzzle box, only each twist and turn takes viewers further away from the solution. A portentous book in the fatherís room holds no answers. A mysterious priest (Xander Berkley, playing the most wicked evangelical since Reverend Kane) wanders into the farm promising salvation but only brings more damnation. Both a family friend and the fatherís caretaker offer cryptic conversations that are more frustrating than they are illuminating. The Dark and the Wicked is a hellish labyrinth with no exit: you only move closer to its bleak center of gravity, ushered in by gut-wrenching visions that deceive and torment Louise and Michael.
It results in a depiction of devilry that goes right back to the Luciferian source. After all, what is the devil if not The Great Deceiver: the sinister voice that intones us to doubt ourselves and even reality itself. Heís the imp lurking behind the evil that befalls us, particularly the evil that carries no explanation. Nothing about Louise, Michael, and their family marks them for such damnation in The Dark and the Wicked. They appear to be nothing more than a fractured family like so many others, and it could just be that the devil latches onto that grief and feeds on it like a ravenous animal. Bertino strings you along, setting the expectation that surely some revelation is at hand, a final, illuminating piece to the puzzle. Instead, he only offers jagged edges to lead you back to a familiar answer: perhaps, he implies, the devil grasped this family in his clutches simply because they were home.
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