Directed by: Bryan Bertino. Starring: Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr., Xander Berkeley. Runtime: 1h 35 min. Released: This film had its International Premiere at Fantasia Film Festival on August 28, 2020.
I originally wasn’t going to catch The Dark and the Wicked at Fantasia, but I’m so glad I did. The plot’s fairly simple: On a secluded farm in a rural town in Texas, the patriarch of the Straker family, simply called Father (Michael Zagst) is dying, as Mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) takes care of him by night. Soon, their grown children Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) come to the farm despite the mom’s warnings, as their father’s death nears. Soon, a darkness sets over the family as there’s a sense of something evil trying to get in.
Bertino directed The Strangers, a film that scared the heck out of me when I was younger. He knows how to build tension, like the scene there where the Man in Mask follows the friend down a hallway as Merle Haggard’s Mama Tried plays on the record player. Speaking of country music, Bertino turns another great country song, with What A Friend We Have in Jesus, into something truly memorable. The Mother sings this song and while creepy children always get respect for being really scary, Bertino makes the elderly actors eerie here, too.
The premise here is something that in other director’s hands would be a slow burn horror film. Bertino’s pacing here is usually pretty quick between scenes and then let’s us sit in that dread when the horror comes. He also finds finds a way to bring the family drama into the horror. There’s hopelessness brought to this film, and there’s powerful drama in a scene I won’t spoil but it’s unimaginable and he goes there. The Dark and the Wicked has an atmosphere that doesn’t ever let you breathe, either, even during the day. Well, there’s a moment in the film after a house call from a priest (Xander Berkeley) where Louise and Michael have to figure out what’s going on, but these scenes are still compelling. Michael asks the Priest if something’s coming for them and the Priest responds, “He’s not out there, he’s already here.”
After these “slower” scenes, Bertino slams back on the pedal. This is only his fourth directing credit and I forgot how strong he is at creating sequences that can fill you with absolute dread and The Dark and the Wicked truly got under my skin. Horror is one of my favourite genres but I usually watch horror films during the day because I’m a scaredy-cat; and watching this home alone at 10 p.m. at night, I had to pause the screening and turn some more lights on. That was after a scene involving a light switch and that scene alone has more dread than half of the horror films I watch. Bertino uses sounds (like the wolves howling and wind chimes) to his advantage and the film is beautifully shot by Tristan Nyby.
He also uses the secluded family farm setting (the film’s shot on Bertino’s own family farm) to his advantage and the setting adds to the contained world building here. When it goes away from the farm, the film’s still strong even though it brings about some unanswered questions.
About the performances, Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. are both great. They handle the melancholy scenes and the terror so well. The character development of feeling the need to stay because it’s their family is very strong. The character work is great and the clues to what will come in some of the mom’s diary entries are truly haunting visually. I didn’t know what to expect going into this film so that’s why I’m not trying to spoil too much but go in expecting creepiness and you’ll get that and more.