'The Dark and the Wicked': Film Review

The Dark and the Wicked
Courtesy of RLJE Films /Shudder
Deeply unsettling.

Two adult siblings encounter mysterious phenomena when they return to their family farm to say goodbye to their dying father in Bryan Bertino's horror film.

The lambs certainly aren't silent in the latest horror film from Bryan Bertino (The Strangers, The Monster). Depicting the fateful reunion that occurs when two adult siblings return home to their family farm on the occasion of the imminent death of their father, The Dark and the Wicked offers supremely atmospheric thrills that will hauntingly resonate with anyone who's ever been faced with a similar situation.

The story begins with Louise (Marin Ireland) and her brother Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) arriving at the farm, filled with bleating sheep and located in a remote area of rural Texas where they grew up (Bertino used his own sprawling family homestead for the shooting, and it deserves star billing). Their elderly father (Michael Zagst), who has been severely ill for many years, has taken a turn for the worse and is essentially comatose. Their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) has clearly been severely emotionally damaged by the strain of caring for him and has become convinced that his malady is demonic in nature — although she doesn't seem particularly relieved by the arrival of her long-absent children. She has amassed a collection of miniature crucifixes, which surprises her children since she has never been religious. When we see her intensely cutting up vegetables with a sharp knife, it's not hard to imagine that things might go very wrong.

And indeed they do, although the film depends far more heavily on mood than a conventional storyline. Suffice it to say that it isn't long before Louise and Michael are mainly left alone with their father, occasionally interacting with various characters including a handyman (Tom Nowicki), a deeply religious nurse (Lynn Andrews), a mysterious young girl (Ella Ballentine) and a bizarrely creepy priest (veteran character Xander Berkeley, making an indelible impression with his brief screen time).

As their father's condition worsens over the course of a week (intertitles provide the specific days, and never has the word "Tuesday" seemed so ominous), the specter of his impending demise seems to physically manifest itself in the house itself, leading to all sorts of spine-chilling phenomena. Meanwhile, Michael's psychological condition begins deteriorating as well.

Working on a far quieter level than the visceral frights he delivered in the 2008 home-invasion thriller The Strangers and only sometimes resorting to standard jump scares, writer/director Bertino never lets the simmering tension dissipate. The ambient sound design, disturbing musical score, disorienting visuals and subtle special effects add immeasurably to the overall impact, but it's Ireland's shattering performance that truly gives the film its gripping power. One of New York City's best stage actors, Ireland (whose screen credits include Martin Scorsese's The Irishman and Netflix's The Umbrella Academy) conveys a fascinating mixture of fragile vulnerability and steely toughness that fully draws us into her character's encroaching terror and lingering guilt.

Much like the similarly themed recent horror film The Relic, The Dark and the Wicked clearly intends to work on a psychological level. That it succeeds to the extent that it does is a testament not only to its technical prowess and powerful performances but also its uncanny ability to tap into existential feelings about familial responsibility. Like the best horror films, its frights linger long after it's over.

Available in theaters, in digital formats and VOD
Production companies: Traveling Picture Show Company, Unbroken Pictures, Shotgun Shack Pictures, Inwood Road Films
Distributor: RLJE Films
Cast: Marin Ireland, Michael Abbot Jr., Julie Oliver-Touchstone, Lynn Andrews, Tom Nowicki, Michael Zagst, Xander Berkeley, Jonathan Trott, Ella Ballentine, Mel Cowan, Mindy Raymond, Chris Doubek
Director/screenwriter: Bryan Bertino
Producers: Bryan Bertino, Adrienne Biddle, Sonny Malhi, Kevin Matusow
Executive producers: Mike Scannell, Carissa Buffel, Steven Chester Prince, Jeff Stevens, Thomas Giamboi, Bruce Cummings, Brian Dalton, James Short, John Short, Milan Chakraborty
Director of photography: Tristan Nyby
Production designer: Scott Colquitt
Editors: William Boodell, Zachary Weintraub
Composer: Tom Schrader
Costume designer: Elizabeth Trott
Casting: Jennifer Richiazzi

95 min.