The Dark and the Wicked

The Dark and the Wicked (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a horror story that thrives in delivering terror in the intimate quiet. Although its plot is not original—adult siblings returning to their parents’ home because their father’s health has turned for the worse—it is confident in what type of tale it wishes to tell: minimalistic, relentless, bleak. “The Dark and the Wicked,” written and directed by Bryan Bertino, offers a foreboding mood, an increasing feeling of dread, and a slow but deliberate pacing. Jolts are present, but they are almost never the point. Notice how the horror tends to escalate once an entity reveals itself from the darkness.

I appreciated that the screenplay does not bother to offer an explanation in regard to whatever is going on in the farmhouse. We know there is a sort of haunting, but we don’t learn why or how it came about. It just is. We are given clues but not the connective tissues and so your interpretation of what might be happening may differ greatly from mine. For all we know, the house is sitting on an ancient Indian burial ground. But because its horror elements are quite potent at times, the lack of information does not matter. It leaves enough for the imagination.

Of utmost importance is survival; there is a reason why Mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) is quite distraught when her daughter, Louise (Marin Ireland), and son, Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.), both feeling guilty for not visiting their parents more often, show up despite the fact that she admonished them not to come. From the look of Mother’s exhausted and desolate eyes, she has been dealing with the evil presence—or whatever it is—for months. She no longer flinches when a kitchen chair moves on its own while she washes the dishes or cuts up vegetables. In fact, she gives off the feeling as though it is merely a part of her daily routine.

The picture reminded me of Nick Szostakiwskyj’s overlooked and underrated “Black Mountain Side.” It isn’t because the two share a similar plot or setting—far from it. Bertino’s story takes place in rural Texas which might as well be light years away from the icy mountains of Canada. The mood of “Wicked” is mournful and solemn while “Mountain” is mired in paranoia and isolation. Although Szostakiwskyj’s work is more oblique, perhaps even insular at times, the two possess an unrelenting vision: that the horror the characters experience is terrifying precisely due to its incomprehensible nature. It is a challenge to discern whether what’s going on can be explained by psychology or something that is not yet within the grasp of our understanding.

Having said that, the picture is limited by the writer-director’s seeming inability to establish a smooth flow from one scene to the next. This weakness is especially noticeable when a terrifying occurrence reaches a zenith; observe that a quick cut is almost always employed. Perhaps the point is to leave viewers rattled. But when the trick is used again and again, one cannot help but suspect it is more of a crutch than a deliberate, artistic choice. Had Bertino mixed it up a bit, perhaps it would not come across as a shortcoming.

Still, “The Dark and the Wicked” captured my interest all the way through—despite a most generic ending. Like James Wan’s two “Conjuring” films, I felt a certain presence of evil here, not when a ghost or demon is shown… but when it is daylight, when everything is where they should be, when characters feel safer, more protected than they do at night. But this isn’t meant to suggest that nothing terrifying unfolds during the day in this story—far from it.

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