It’s a curious decision to release the scariest movie of the year a week after Halloween, but here we are. Writer/director Bryan Bertino’s The Dark and the Wicked is the kind of horror film that inspires actual nightmares, with moments so gruesome they’ll be bouncing around in your subconscious every time the lights switch off. The film is all the creepier as the scares originate in the unknown; there’s no Jason or Freddie to fight back against here, no way to put a tidy, defeat-the-monster bow on the film’s final scenes.
Siblings Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) return to their family’s rural Texas farm to spend time with their dying father (Michael Zagst) and help their exhausted mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) manage the land and the herd of sheep they keep. From the get-go, strange things happen in and around the house, and in blink-and-you-miss-them spooks, Bertino wastes no time in ratcheting up the tension. It all puts an audience immediately on edge, a position that serves the film well as things progress into ever darker, more brutal nightmares.
While Louise and Michael get their bearings on the farm, their mother shows signs of her many years caring for a deteriorating spouse. She’s absent-minded and distracted, and both her children are confused by the collection of crucifixes around the house, gathered by a woman who’s not particularly religious. But she’s convinced that something demonic is making her husband sick, slowly killing him, and the thoughts consume her every moment. To brutally drive the point home, we see her preparing dinner, chopping vegetables in a sort of disassociated state; perhaps predictably, what with the ominous music building and the tense close-ups of the knife and her distraught face, the moment goes terribly awry. A more timid horror film might’ve left it there, for us to understand and imagine exactly what happens. But Bertino has no interest in such subtleties, and as the brutal moment drags graphically on, The Dark and the Wicked wants us to know just how bad its terrors will get.
For reasons that won’t be spoiled here, Louise and Michael are soon on their own caring for their ailing father, and the nightmares only continue. As each of them discovers more about the strange happenings around their childhood home, including an ominous journal their mother kept about the worst of it, their individual experiences also intensify. Without warning, hauntings invade their every thought and even the most mundane moments; Louise tries to take a shower only to be terrified to tears by a manifestation of her ailing father that looms over the bath with ghostly white eyes and a truly horrifying look about him. Michael finds her cowering at the bottom of the shower, but it’s the audience that’s most shaken by the deeply disturbing moment (in a film that’s filled with them).
A handful of supporting players find their way to the farm, from a caretaker who’s been helping their father (and witnessing the disturbances their mother feared so much) to a priest who might be just as creepy as anything happening within the house. In the middle of all the terrible hauntings happening, the siblings try to salvage some sort of normal goodbye to their dying father. As their grief intensifies, so do their traumas, some inflicting bodily harm and some the grisly hallucinations of a force far stronger than both of them. It’s as if the more their emotions get the better of them, the more space the evil has to move in and take over space in their minds and hearts.
When all is said and done on the year’s film releases, many will be remembered as accomplishments in the craft or for their indelible performances. As far as horror films are concerned, The Dark and the Wicked may be the purest distillation of the genre this year. It’s a film that never gets distracted by gimmicks or subplots, instead delivering a truly disturbing narrative with visuals that don’t leave any of the terror to the imagination. The faint-hearted will want to watch with the lights on; the genre die-hards will quickly make it a new classic in the canon.
The Dark and the Wicked is now playing at Music Box Theatre. Please follow venue, state and CDC health and safety guidelines if attending indoor screenings.
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