By: Brendan Graham
As horror fans, we’ve seen our fair share of traumatic and horrific scenarios, but often depicted quite playfully. Genre fans often choose films that they know are going to be fun, wanting that roller coaster feeling of excitement and thrills, that we can laugh about afterward as the credits roll. However, sometimes we don’t want to feel good. There's something cathartic about going through a controlled traumatic situation. We know that in life it’s not all sunshine, and sometimes we want to watch a movie that reflects that. Sometimes we’re just itching to feel hopeless, rather than hopeful. 2020’s THE DARK AND THE WICKED will scratch that itch for you. Out in rural Texas on a remote farm, an aging couple deals with the impending death of the husband, and all the grief and pain that hangs heavy inside their once happy cabin. Grown-up siblings, Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbot Jr.) have returned home to help care for their father during this time and to show support to their mother, whom they have barely spoken to in quite some time. However, their mother is angry to see them after having warned them to stay away from the farm, an ominous warning that her kids couldn’t understand.
Thinking it’s just her anger from being so distant, Louise and Michael both stay and pitch in around the farm, helping with the daily chores while their mother’s behavior and mental state grow more erratic and troublesome with each passing day. Soon it becomes evident that their mother’s warnings for her children to stay away were not from a place of disdain or hurt - they came from a place of love, and the evil that has gathered in this once happy home threatens to envelop all of their lives.
Horror has always been an outlet to express our pain and relate to characters going through similar (yet fantastical) situations. For anyone that has struggled to have a relationship with their family members, THE DARK AND THE WICKED is a sucker punch in the gut. The siblings, Louise and Michael, are dealing with not only the impending death of their father, but also the guilt of not being there in their parents' time of need. You can really feel the distance between these family members, and it just feels incredibly (and painfully) awkward. Hopelessness and death loom over every scene with this family, and as an audience, we are hoping for some good to come out of this situation - but the director Bryan Bertino (who also directed The Strangers) has chosen torment and suffering for this family, and we’re along for the disturbing ride.
The film wastes no time in creating an unsettling atmosphere, and THE DARK AND THE WICKED has some of the most gorgeous and haunting cinematography and sound design I’ve heard in quite some time. If you didn’t think religious hymns could be creepy, you thought wrong, and there’s a particular sequence with Michael in his bedroom that still gives me chills thinking about it. This movie plays mean, and sticks with it throughout its runtime, and at no point do you ever feel safe. The scares (well-crafted, but sometimes predictable) have intense weight to them, that you may find yourself leaping from your seat from time to time. The film also plays some mean tricks, including a scene involving Michael’s wife and kids that was absolutely twisted. Most of the performances are fantastic, with Ireland and Abbot Jr. creating a very believable, and often unspoken bond as siblings, wearing their emotions externally and really playing into the fear of the unknown and grief of losing a loved one in every scene. The performances from Mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) and the Priest (Xander Berkeley) stand out as well, for their commitment to making the audience unnerved and uncomfortable. Some of the secondary characters (and there are not too many) are not as convincing, which is a shame.
Audiences may find THE DARK AND THE WICKED to be too suffocatingly dark on top of it being a bit simplistic. If you’re a horror fan that likes to have a good laugh after each scare and frightening sequence, this may not be for you. This film is unapologetically nihilistic, and often pessimistic, and that may just turn certain audiences off. The ending is also abrupt, and it’s a 50-50 shot on how you may react to it - you’ll either like the quick-cut ending, or you’ll feel a bit robbed. While it may not be for everyone, THE DARK AND THE WICKED proves it deserves its title by being an often uncomfortably frightening, and emotionally devastating experience. Not only is it ruthless in crafting an atmosphere of pure dread, but it really cuts to the heart of family-related trauma, and the devastation of death in the family. If you’re looking for something light-hearted, look elsewhere, but if you’re itching for an experience that may rattle you to your core, “Come Outside” and experience THE DARK AND THE WICKED. THE DARK AND THE WICKED is available on Blu-ray, DVD, video-on-demand services, and on SHUDDER.