Fantasia International Film Festival runs August 20th through September 2nd as a completely online event. We’re used to attending in person in beautiful Montreal, Canada, but we’re excited to cover this fantastic festival virtually too. Our coverage of this year’s Fantasia Festival continues with our review of Bryan Bertino’s The Dark and the Wicked.
Most of us have had darkness of one kind or another cast its shadow over our family’s lives. It’s usually surmountable, no matter how challenging, but in the heat of it things can often feel hopeless. That oppressive feeling, the fear that no matter what we do we’re not going to overcome things, is something of a niche for writer/director Bryan Bertino. His near masterpiece of a horror film, The Strangers (2008), is a terrifying example, but he may have outdone himself with the crushing and emotionally brutal The Dark and the Wicked.
Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) are adult siblings who return home to their family farm under grim circumstances. Their father has fallen ill and is bedridden and unconscious, and their mother is crumbling beneath the weight of both his absence and his presence. Their arrival upsets her further as she told them both to stay away, but after years of focusing on their own lives they insist on being here for her now. She takes her own life a day later leaving her children to mourn, care for their father, and question what the hell is happening in the place they once called home. Visions, sounds, and regrets fill the air as it soon becomes clear that something else is on the farm with them, and it’s hungry for their very souls.
The Dark and the Wicked delivers on its title with a dark and wickedly nihilistic slice of supernatural horror. Bertino unleashes everything in his arsenal to deliver immediate scares, atmospheric chills, and a devastating sense of terrifying unease. Shadows, sharp cuts, and impeccable sound design work to create a situation from which there is no escape. From early flashes of something in the barn amid the goats, to horrifying hallucinations of the dead, to the undeniable feeling that something is in the room with them, these characters are put through the ringer — and Bertino ensures that viewers share in that fear.
Bertino relies on the unreliable at times with music stingers to “enhance” the jump scares, a shaky face retread straight out of Jacob’s Ladder (1990), and now you see them, now you don’t visions. There’s a method to the madness as the evil entity is working to manipulate the family and leave them frightened and unsure, but he also lets more than a few scares hang in the air including barely glimpsed figures in the background and some terrifically frightening sound design. A supposedly empty chair scrapes across the floor and settles beneath the weight of an unseen occupant, bells clang in the darkness, and the cries of something unnatural haunt the night. It’s not all shadows and trickery, though, as Bertino also delivers more practical horrors. Chief among them is an early scene highlighting a grotesquely cringe-worthy instance of finger violence that you won’t soon forget.
For all of the expected genre elements that identify The Dark and the Wicked as a horror film, though, its greatest power to disturb comes from the characters’ growing struggle with fear and grief for what’s lost. There’s a sadness in the family’s disconnect, and it’s made more devastating seeing Louise and Michael sincerely try to salvage their relationship not only with their mother but with each other too. Love should strengthen and embolden us against evils real and imagined, but what if it’s not enough? What if the threat, the entity that’s invaded your home, is so insistent in its cruelty and mental games that it simply wears you down through terror, misery, and loss that the fight seems unwinnable? Sometimes love, faith, and hope just can’t compete.
There are a handful of supporting players here including a brief but disturbing turn by Xander Berkeley, but it’s Ireland and Abbott Jr. who earn viewer praise even as we sympathize with their characters. As siblings walking an uneasy path toward reconnecting, the pair display an unspoken connection in the way they communicate with glances and shorthand. The love and anger they feel towards each other is palpable, and it makes their journey that much more harrowing and heartbreaking. Credit is also due to cinematographer Tristan Nyby and composer Tom Schraeder for shaping the atmosphere and the terror through images and sounds both subtle and jarring.
The Dark and the Wicked is a true chiller that tightens its grip on viewers from the very first scenes and doesn’t let go until the end credits roll. Suffocating terror and nerve-wracking tension aren’t a common combination, but Bertino finds his sweet spot in the pairing and delivers an often unrelentingly frightening experience. Fans of cinematic dread should seek it out immediately — unless you live on a farm in which case you should probably never watch it. Like, ever.