Two despondent siblings reunite under the shadow of supernatural goings-on in Bryan Bertino’s tremendously effective and atmospheric horror film The Dark and the Wicked. It is often difficult to find a point of difference that can enable this sort of demonic haunting narrative to stand out; Bertino goes for a strong combination of scares and a particularly bleak tone. In a genre awash with modestly budgeted independent fare, The Dark and the Wicked easily rises to the surface.
Estranged brother and sister Michael (Michael Abbott Jr) and Louise (Marin Ireland) return to their childhood home when their terminal ill father (Michael Zagst) – lying in a coma – takes a turn for the worse. Their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) demands that they leave, shortly before taking her own life. Left alone to care for their father, Michael and Louise begin to sense a supernatural presence in the house.
At a glance there does not seem to be a great deal to The Dark and the Wicked. An isolated farmhouse provide a claustrophobic setting. Various bumps and whispers in the night ramp up the tension. Sudden reveals of apparitions and visions create industry-standard jump scares. It is only as the film develops that its extensive and strong merits become apparent. For one thing it is skilfully presented with a strong visual sense and a constant sense of rising tension. Even if many of the overt horror elements feel overly familiar, Bertino’s execution of them makes them pleasurable to sit through.
It is not all about the scary moments, either. The film presents a family that was fractured beyond repair before the cameras started rolling, and which is liberally soaked in unspoken regrets and wounded distance. Michael and Louise have clearly not visited their parents in a long time, and it is obvious that they have only come now because their father is so close to passing away. When their mother tells them not to come to the house, they take it as continued behaviour from some unmentioned crisis. Whatever has happened to the family in the past is affecting Michael and Louise’s reactions to what is occurring in their parent’s house. It is ominous and vague, and casts a miserable pall over the entire film.
Abbott and Ireland deliver very effective performances, portraying an unusual degree of realism in how two self-proclaimed atheists respond to witnessing the uncanny. It is a slow burn, and both actors contribute to their mutually distanced emotions and growing paranoia. Supporting actor Xander Berkeley is also remarkably strong as a local priest who attempts to intervene in events.
This is an elegant, mournful, and pitch-black exercise in supernatural horror. Bertino builds on an initially slow pace to gradually ratchet up the tension by the film’s superb second half. The performances are strong, the design and photography top-notch, and the central horror is wonderfully expressed. If you like your horror movies dark – and this example seems particularly grim and humourless – The Dark and the Wicked is one of the must-see films of the year.