The Dark and the Wicked, 2020.
Directed by Bryan Bertino.
Starring Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr., Julie Oliver-Touchstone, Tom Nowicki and Xander Berkeley.
A brother and sister return to their family home to visit their ailing father and become victims of the evil that lurks there.
Alright, this has gone on for long enough. We’ve had decades of possession movies where family members are struck down by invisible forces as their desperate siblings or parents try to force the evil out but in the past half a decade this plot idea has mutated deeper into psychological territory, where explanations are vague and everyday traumas manifest themselves as horror, complete with jump scares, silhouettes and… well, not a lot else really and certainly not a coherent story.
In The Dark and the Wicked, a movie produced in association with horror streaming service Shudder, Louise Straker (Marin Ireland) returns to her family home as her gravely ill father is bedridden. Her brother Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) has already arrived and everything seems solemn and a little bit off thanks to the behaviour of their mother Virginia (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) who warns them that they shouldn’t have returned. Quite why is left as a bit of a mystery but when the grief-stricken Virginia mutilates herself before committing suicide the two siblings start succumbing to the dark forces that seem to be haunting the property.
Or maybe not, because those dark forces are never clearly defined, the reasons why people do what they do are never explained and what purpose does Xander Berkeley’s Priest character serve? You won’t find out from reading this, nor will you find out from watching the movie because being vague and non-committal seems to be what writer/director Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) is aiming for, and on that level he succeeds.
Which isn’t to say that The Dark and the Wicked is totally without merit, because it isn’t. The seeds of something far better than what we actually ended up with are sown early on during a bleak and dark opening when Louise first returns to the family farm and the atmosphere is thick with melancholy. The actors involved sell the grief of their characters with upmost conviction and the scene is set for something truly harrowing to occur but it never quite reaches the heights of what the creepy first act promises, instead weaving together a series of mini set pieces that suggest supernatural foul play is at work – mainly thanks to the obligatory quick-cut jump scares that filmmakers still insist on overdoing despite the knowing eye being able to spot them coming a mile off – and as each scene starts to build into something revelatory the momentum just sort of stops and we move onto the next, admittedly gorgeous, scene-setting vista to do it all over again.
Beautifully shot, superbly acted and dripping in atmosphere it may be but that isn’t enough to keep The Dark and the Wicked from falling into the modern genre trap of not actually having anything else under the hood, as it were. There are flashes of startling imagery and moments of tension but they soon dissipate once you realise that lingering on creepy-looking old people with white eyes only works for so long before they start to resemble Deadites and you wait for the inevitable splatter violence that never comes, and it soon becomes apparent that there is no actual story or plot to speak of, the feeling of melancholy switching to one of frustration when the predictable ending comes and the credits roll.
So yes, The Dark and the Wicked continues the current mainstream horror trend of half an idea (sometimes known as ‘a simple premise’) filmed and stretched out to a feature-length running time on the pretence of offering up something we haven’t seen before. The truth is we have seen this before – Bryan Bertino’s own inexplicably popular The Strangers being a good example – and whilst audiences may twitch at the quiet-quiet-BOOM! jump scares and giggle nervously like little children at the sight of an eyeless face or a static silhouette – which is the desired effect, to be fair – ultimately this style of filmmaking produces nothing but empty calories on which to gorge until the next odd family trauma/evil spirit in a secluded house movie comes along to do the same thing all over again. The captive audiences with nothing else to watch over the past year have a lot to answer for.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★