Bryan Bertino first shocked audiences with The Strangers, stinging our sense of isolation horror and creating a whole new brand of stranger danger. With The Dark and the Wicked, Bertino turns that sting into a stab, twisting in new terrors to haunt your dreams. The film is a horrific nightmare from which siblings Louise (Marin Ireland, Hell or High Water) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr., Mud) cannot wake.
With their father near death and their mother struggling to manage the family farm, Louise and Michael return home, despite their mother urging them to stay away. There’s a palpable feeling of darkness settling over the farm, and Louise and Michael soon come to realize that something is very, deeply wrong. Something is coming for their ailing father, and there’s no hope to stop it.
Filmed on the actual Bertino family farm, the cold rural setting encourages discomfort. There’s no warmth in this family home, no sense of belonging. Early scenes with the siblings and their mother are loaded with formality and distance. There is a distinctly stilted relationship within the family. It makes the following events even more unnerving as you never feel quite comfortable there to begin with.
A sense of dread builds through the film, and stillness steeps it to the point where it’s almost unbearable. Something as simple as chopping carrots can torture you with tension. The music (by Tom Schraeder) is delicate but with a clear weight that pulls you down. The shot framing, the editing, the sound design, every element is perfectly balanced in a way that absolutely ruins your nerves.
We move through the story day by day, with title cards announcing our progress. Without knowing where we’re going to end up, there’s a sense of anticipation, especially when you realize just how much can happen in one day on this hellbound homestead.
The Dark and the Wicked is formed around the loss of a parent. It’s an inevitability that most of us will have to deal with at one point or another in our lives, and it’s a sobering thought. Bertino weaves in the idea of finding religion late in life; some may seek comfort in the warm bosom of the bible as they creep closer to the great unknown. But what if these newfound beliefs are formed not from a place of comfort, but a place of fear.
It’s this fear that churns through the film, chugging away like an old steam engine, growing in power until it’s about to burst. Louise and Michael can feel it, can sense it, but there’s nothing they can do to slow it down. You feel their utter sense of hopelessness. A great evil is not coming, it’s already here.
In these moments, Bertino plays with shadows, lighting, and sound to build an atmosphere that vibrates with true horror. It’s rare to find a film that makes me feel anxious anymore, but The Dark and the Wicked gave me that “I’m scared to watch but I can’t look away” feeling that every horror fan yearns for. Some moments are a flash in the pan, but for the truly upsetting scenes, Bertino holds you there, unflinching, draining every last bit of terror he can. In one aforementioned carrot chopping scene, you fully anticipate what might happen, yet I was still so fraught with tension that I could barely stand it.
Bertino pushes his characters to the brink of sanity and holds them there, leaning over the edge, about to drop into a deep abyss. There’s no turning back, no escaping it. No one is safe. The more the film progresses, the more you realize this, and you cannot look away.
The Dark and the Wicked lives up to its title. It’s a true horror film, loaded with genuine fear and a heavy, bleak, deeply upsetting ending that will undoubtedly stick with you. Bertino has proven himself to be one of the new masters of horror, and this film will surely make its way into many Top Horror of 2020 lists. It’s mean, it’s dark, and it’s seriously fucking wicked.