Review: The Dark and the Wicked

Director: Bryan Bertino

Stars: Xander Berkeley, Marin Ireland, Michael Abbot, Jr.

Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael Straker (Michael Abbot, Jr.) are siblings, reunited when they return to the rural Texan homestead to look after their parents. Their father (Michael Zagst) is comatose, and their mother (Julie Oliver-Thouchstone) has taken her own downturn due to the bleakness of the situation. But things are more pronounced than that. Tragedy strikes early when the two of them discover their mother hanged in the barn – a seeming suicide after dicing her own fingers while preparing dinner. Ghoulish as this may be, its only the beginning of their troubles. Both Louise and Michael start seeing apparitions everywhere, while discovered diary pages make grim references to the devil plaguing the family farm.

The Dark and the Wicked is the latest slice of maudlin macabre from Bryan Bertino, who has previously offered us similarly dour dramatics in the form of The Strangers and The Monster. In both instances Bertino imprinted a standard horror staple with his own brand of oppressive filmmaking (by turns the home invasion horror and the creature feature). His latest finds him rummaging in the toy box favoured by much of the last decade’s mainstream hits; ghosts, demons and the menacing manifestation of extant trauma.

Supporting cast royalty Xander Berkeley is on hand as a god-fearing priest whose words only encourage the pair’s misgivings about the property. Berkeley serves up delicious ham in the role, both when playing it (relatively) straight at the family dinner table and when performing double-duty as a trickster facsimile who arrives on the doorstep at 3am – a further encounter to rattle the bones of the living.

Bertino seems keen to express the mortal fears of the children when faced with the fragility of the parents. The child being father to the man, and so on. There’s also an underlying tension that stems from a sense of eroded faith. Louise and Michael are not believers. They subscribe to no religion. And while the pair are refreshingly quick to take the supernatural threats seriously, they represent a generational shift in their approach to the unproven. In turn there’s a suggestion that this makes them easy prey. “Young people feel too much nowadays,” I’ve often heard from conservative colleagues senior to me… The Dark and the Wicked seems to marry such sentiments. Openness as a path to downfall.

As reality is manipulated beyond the point at which Louise and Michael can trust anything – even each other – Bertino’s reverence for ambiguity threatens to obscure his story. As with Robert Eggers’ recent cult hit The Lighthouse, there’s a sneaking suspicion that such coyness is an easy get-out from actually pinning down and sticking to an assertive narrative.

To his credit, he instills his piece with a persistent sense of foreboding, meaning that even the most familiar creeps register a shiver. Bertino’s ghosts have a palpable physicality to them. They can touch and manipulate things, making them a more substantive threat than most we’ve seen of late. They still have the irritating habit of appearing only to vanish again, however, as though haunting were an infernal and interminable game of peek-a-boo. Such scares are too tired now and deserve to rest in peace.

So much of The Dark and the Wicked is textbook that one starts to assume Bertino isn’t so much interested in reinventing the wheel as he is seeing what happens when he gets to turn it. If this is a straight-faced homage to Bertino’s own horror favourites, then the titles that manifest are diverse, ranging from The Silence of the Lambs (its a sheep farm after all) to The Witch. Hell, with his fondness for inter-titles that clock the passing of the days, even The Shining becomes a credible touchstone.

In that sense The Dark and the Wicked will likely play strongest to Bertino’s established audience. A horror film to be appreciated by the genre’s enthusiasts. And while it is a cut above the likes of your standard Conjuring Universe installment, there are a few too many echoes and not quite enough invention. It also, frankly, suffers from arriving in the wake of Natalie Erika James’ Relic, which handled similar themes with more strident emotional weight.

 

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