REVIEW: The Dark and the Wicked (Fantasia 2020)
There are places where absolutely nothing good ever happens. The very land itself seems to have given up, and deep, all-consuming depression sets in. And where darkness is given a foothold, evil will take advantage. The Dark and the Wicked occupies a suffocatingly bleak space in a rural Texan farmhouse, where a father’s failing health serves as a catalyst for malevolent forces to wreak havoc on a crumbling family unit. Relentless and brutal, The Dark and the Wicked builds a pervasive sense of dread that reaches almost unbearable peaks in its torment of the estranged, emotionally repressed family featured within.
Louise (Marin Ireland) has returned home after maintaining only loose connections with her family for some years. She is there to help care for her elderly father, who is bedridden, unresponsive, and fading fast. But she can’t escape the feeling that there is something wrong with her family home, aside from the impending loss of its patriarch. We can tell that this house has been in decline for quite some time. The interior reeks of neglect, perhaps once cozy and warm but long since abandoned to disrepair. Louise struggles to remember the last time she spoke with her parents, before tragedy made their paths intersect once again.
Whatever is wrong with this family has been wrong for a long time. One of The Dark and the Wicked’s repeated motifs is the lack of clear communication between them; the horror of things unsaid and unseen, left to fester. Snippets of dialogue reinforce this breech. “We should have talked to her,” one sibling says to another, wracked with guilt over their mother’s sudden and tragic deterioration. “I don’t want to talk about it,” Louise constantly refrains, unwilling to unburden herself to her brother. Time and again they have the opportunity to discuss the strange and unexplained sense of evil that inhabits their childhood home, but neither is willing to bridge the gap and vocalize their fears. They choose to ignore the trauma and heartache and despair, repressing their emotions and burying them. They hide their most upsetting feelings deep in the darkness: exactly where they’re most vulnerable.
The Dark and the Wicked never discloses its villain: it’s kept purposefully abstract. But we don’t need to know who or what is perpetuating such a merciless assault on this family to understand its threat, and it’s maybe even better that the film doesn’t get bogged down in lore or exposition. What it does, perhaps better than anything else, is create an atmosphere. Although it has genuinely scary moments scattered throughout, they’re not what gives the film its impact. Instead, The Dark and the Wicked builds a constant state of dread for both the characters and the viewers. Helplessness. Hopelessness. The feeling that this sense of wrongness is perpetual and unending and inescapable. And what’s worse, leaving the house isn’t enough to shake yourself free from it. It wants you to leave, but you’re not safe even if you do.
The Dark and the Wicked cultivates a unique unreality. One of its most unsettling aspects is the way that it constantly plays with perceptions, challenging what the characters see and hear. If you can’t trust your eyes and ears, how can you ever expect to protect yourself from the dark forces that would manipulate your reality? In a film that relies heavily on atmosphere and has little narrative thrust, these moments of misdirection and shock are essential to maintain any sort of pacing for The Dark and the Wicked.
In some ways, it’s strange to talk about The Dark and the Wicked solely through the lens of a horror film. Because one of the things that makes it so special is how narrowly it walks the line between horror and a more traditional drama. In its quieter moments that focus on this divided family and their shared grief, it is so thoroughly entrenched in reality that it comes as a profound shock when things take a more supernatural turn. Without that domestic grounding, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective, and the fact that for the most part this feels like just your run-of-the-mill rural farmhouse makes it all the more terrifying.
With The Dark and the Wicked, director Bryan Bertino further expands his repertoire, blurring lines between horror and indie drama, reality and imagination, good and evil. He takes the perceived safety of a childhood home and turns it into something unwelcoming and alienating. His latest venture is a slow burn, but one that should linger in the memory of the viewer — not just for its jump scares or its merciless brutality, but for its unrelenting bleakness.