FILM REVIEW: THE DARK AND THE WICKED (FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL)
When the Fantasia Film Festival announced its 2020 film lineup, one that immediately piqued my interest was Bryan Bertino’s THE DARK AND THE WICKED. I’ve been a big fan of the directors’ work since he burst onto the scene with 2008’s home invasion shocker THE STRANGERS. That particular film is still considered the high-water mark that pretty much all other home invasion films are compared to. So seeing that this writer/director was once again pulling double duty on his latest feature, I was ready for whatever was waiting for me on the other side. While THE DARK AND THE WICKED has all the hallmarks of Bertino’s signature isolationist terror, the film just left me wanting a little more. Granted, I have come to expect nothing short of greatness from this auteur, but this outing left me just a little underwhelmed.
THE DARK AND THE WICKED takes place on Bertino’s real-life family farm, and revolves around two adult children, Louise (Marin Ireland) & Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.), heading home to see their ailing father (Michael Zagst). When I say “ailing”, I mean more like knocking on death’s door…he’s essentially comatose. It’s clear that it’s been a while since Louise or Michael have been home, but it’s also clear that they genuinely want to help. However, when they arrive to see their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone), she makes it known that she REALLY doesn’t want them there. She’s cold and distant, and literally tells them “you shouldn’t have come”. From the get-go the tension is high. Much like THE STRANGERS, there are all these little moments of discomfort that create an almost palpable sense of tension. Just when you think Bertino is going to give you some relief from the on screen angst, he pulls back to let you stew in it a little while longer. It’s a masterclass in creating suspense. It feels like an itch that won’t scratch, or a sneeze that retreats at the last second. It’s leading us to (hopefully) a most satisfying release when it finally drops the hammer.
As Louise & Michael try to help out and ease the burdens of their parents, things are immediately just not right. Mother is in an almost trance-like state, and reiterates time and time again that they shouldn’t be there, or that they should leave. On the first or second night of being at the farm, Louise locks up the house before bed only to turn around to see the front door she just locked wide open. An ominous warning to say the least. Both Louise and Michael are very reasonable pragmatic thinkers which was refreshing, since most horror film characters are a little too quick to dismiss any strange happenings as nothing to worry about. Both of them know that these little warnings are to be taken seriously, and what they are experiencing is not imagined.
After the house is locked up and everyone but mother has turned in for the night, she starts prepping some carrots and onions for tomorrow. We’ve seen the carrot chop gag a thousand times, right? The person chopping stares off into space with the knife getting closer and closer to their fingers. It usually culminates in an accidental nick, but in this instance mother just keeps on going until her first few fingers are obliterated! If you’ve seen the 2001 Japanese film SUICIDE CLUB, then you have an idea of what’s in store. It’s graphic and disturbing. The following day, the kids come into the kitchen to see the gory aftermath, but mother is nowhere to be found. Further inspection of the farm, finds mother hanging in one of the barns on the property! The height and manner in which she’s hung calls into question how she would’ve been able to do it herself. It’s beginning to seem that someone or something has a tight grip on the farm and the family as things just keep getting worse.
Father’s nurse tells the kids that their mother has been talking to herself. That she believes demonic forces are at work, and that Father is in a life and death struggle with this entity. Finding Mother’s diary only further illustrates this, as the entries get less and less coherent. The following few days have both Louise and Micheal experiencing things that can only be described as supernatural. Louise is confronted by her comatose father while she’s in the shower. The man is unable to move on his own, but there he is, in a catatonic state with his head vibrating like something out of THE EXORCIST before vanishing. Later, while Michael is trying to sleep, someone keeps turning the lights on and off. He gets up and looks outside to see his recently deceased mother beckoning him outside. It’s not a welcoming beckon either, definitely more on the sinister side. The apparition soon disappears, but they both know what they’ve seen. Micheal even says at one point “I wasn’t dreaming and I didn’t imagine it, because that doesn’t happen”. Again, refreshing to see horror characters trusting themselves and knowing what they are experiencing is in fact real to them.
It isn’t until a local priest (Xander Berkeley) shows up unannounced that we start to get any kind of explanation. Usually in these types of movies the priest is a comforting presence, the “here to help” kind of person. This guy is not that. He just has bad vibes all over him, and a smirk that made my skin crawl. Louise and Michael attribute parts of their mother’s mental state to some kind of subconscious suggestion made by this man. Since no one in the family has ever been religious, it seems only right that maybe this creepy priest planted some seeds that sprouted into full blown psychosis. At the same time however, the kids know that what they’ve been seeing is real. The kids ask him to leave, but things only escalate from here. What follows will be nothing short of a battle between good and evil for the souls of everyone involved. Whether demonic or otherwise, no one is getting out unscathed.
THE DARK AND THE WICKED is ultimately a unique spin on the haunted house genre, with some notes of demonic possession thrown in for good measure. It’s both dark and wicked, and doesn’t hold back on the violence when it’s called for. It’s also tense and as unsettling as anything I’ve seen at the fest this year. Unfortunately, for me, trying to straddle these two genres sort of muddied the waters. I’m a person that is fine with an ambiguous conclusion 99% of the time, but not when the film is entirely built around solving a mystery. I was waiting 94 of 95 minutes for that A-HA moment that just never arrived for me. There was plenty to enjoy and I most certainly did, I just felt that the conclusion was really anything but that…a conclusion. As the credits were rolling, I found myself sitting in the dark feeling that I needed just a little more closure.
I think to some degree “closure” was not really the point of the film. To me it was more about figurative and literal demons that exist within every family. Not only demons of the past, but also the almost demonic manifestation of a loved one’s declining health. I was reminded of another horror film this year called RELIC. While they are both quite different in some respects, they also tread a lot of similar ground with regard to losing people we love. If I was some sort of sadistic film programmer, I might consider putting these two together for one of the most depressing double features of all time! THE DARK AND THE WICKED definitely goes for the jugular much more than RELIC, and I always appreciate a film that wants to disturb you. I just needed a little more “why”, but the film was still pretty damn dark without it. I just think it could’ve been a home run with the tiniest little bit more explanation.
THE DARK AND THE WICKED made its international premiere on Friday at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival. The fact that the film was also produced by Shudder has me thinking that you won’t have to wait too long to see it at a living room near you, but I’m also certain it will be making the rounds at numerous other film festivals this fall.
“THE DARK AND THE WICKED has all the hallmarks of Bertino’s signature isolationist terror”
3 1/2 Tombstones out of 5…