There are few things as scary as someone or something that wants to hurt you just because they can. And because they enjoy it. Bryan Bertino twisted the knife into that primal terror with his 2008 directorial debut The Strangers, which set a bar for the early-aughts home invasion trend by packaging pure evil as a trio of masked killers and setting them loose on a couple you couldn’t help but root for. With The Dark and the Wicked, Bertino delivers another bleak and brutal home invasion story of sorts, but this time, it’s not the malice of mankind knocking at your door, it’s the dang devil himself.
Set on an isolated family farm, The Dark and the Wicked stars Marin Ireland and Michael Abbot Jr. as Louise and Michael; a distant sister and brother who return to their homestead on their father’s deathbed. Their mother gives them a vague warning not to come, which they obviously ignore, dutifully heading to their father’s bedside to say goodbye. But when they arrive, something is off. Their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) is a rattling shadow of her former self and their father (Michael Zagst) is all but gone, but it’s not just the grief casting a shadow over their family home. There’s something else, something sinister in the air, and it’s not long until their already dreary homecoming turns into a hellish nightmare.
Bertino stages his action over several days, giving the grief and the menace alike time to fester, swell, and transform. Punctuating his moments of terror with title cards not only track the passage of time, but infuses each moment with the knowledge that we’re heading towards some unholy endgame. If there’s a start date, there must be an end date, and when you start in such a grim place, you can’t help but wince in anticipation of what’s to come.
In many ways, The Dark and the Wicked feels like a sibling film to The Strangers. There’s the remote rural setting, the sinking sense of despair, and the complicated emotional relationships, but they also share structural and thematic overlaps that slip the knife into the same existential terror: that in this world, there are cruel forces that will kill you just to see you die and torment you for the simple pleasure of watching you suffer.
Except The Dark and the Wicked kicks that dread up a notch, projecting the cavalier “because you were home” cruelty of his Strangers onto devilish otherworldly forces. Those Dark and Wicked entities don’t just want your suffering, they want your soul, and there are no walls to build, doors to lock, or shotguns to load that can keep them from their desires. It makes no difference to them whether you believe. As the film puts it, the wolf doesn’t care if the sheep believes in it. A meal’s a meal, a soul’s a soul.
As for the souls in question, both leads are fantastic at translating their terror through grounded, believable reactions. Ireland has always been one of those performers you’re happy to see and coming off her scene-stealing role in The Umbrella Academy Season 2, it’s wonderful to see her carry the lead with such commanding presence and raw vulnerability. For his part, Bertino again proves he’s a master of directing fear, giving his performers time and space (his use of a wide frame remains killer) to register the harrowing escalation of fear. Bertino’s characters are more likely to crumple themselves up and cower in fear that run off shrieking, which means any time a scream cuts through the already hair-raising sound design, it’s earned and all the more effective for it.
The Dark and the Wicked comes in quick with a smothering sense of dread and offers some early carnage to establish the stakes, but Bertino always takes time to sit with the characters, lingering in their agony, ramping up the oppressive atmosphere with each new sequence. Movies like this often get labeled a “slow burn,” but Bertino’s effect is more of a slow freeze. He sets the stage with a chilling event that settles into the blood, then the gut, then your bones until you’re frigid, frozen solid, ready to shatter on impact. Anyone’s who’s seen The Strangers can tell you that Bertino knows how to land a blow. In fact, The Strangers has proved to be one of my most enduring horror movie-going experiences specifically because of its devastating ending.
But where The Strangers builds and builds and builds towards its inescapable climactic gut-punch, The Dark and the Wicked crescendos in smaller waves. It’s scary and effective, and you’d probably have better luck counting the scenes where you don’t have goosebumps, but it never quite lands that finishing blow. The Dark and the Wicked is at its best when it weaponizes its existential nihilism, needling at the helplessness of facing down cosmic evil. But by roping that evil into the demonic, the film spins an uneven web of mythology that it never quite contends with, leaving too many unanswered questions that feel unsatisfying rather than provocative.
The Dark and the Wicked may not have the staying power of some of Bertino’s other works (the ending of The Blackcoat’s Daughter, which he produced, has also haunted me for years), but its effect is certainly strong enough to linger into the night, when the lights are out and you ponder what might be waiting for you in the darkness. It’s sinister and certainly one of the scariest movies of the year, elevated by Ireland’s outstanding performance and Bertino’s skill for plunging head-first into some of the darkest spectrums of the human experience.
The Dark and the Wicked premiered at Fantasia Fest 2020 and arrives in theaters, On Demand & Digital November 6th.