Lately, there has been a rash of horror movies centered around family drama and the loss of a loved one. Specifically, Hereditary (2018) and Relic (2020) come to mind. The Dark and the Wicked falls into that category. Written and directed by Bryan Bertino (The Strangers), the film is a punishing and relentless take on a family dealing with mortality, suicide, and loss. The movie disturbs within the first 15 minutes and never relents.
Siblings Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) are called home after their dad falls ill. The father never rises from bed and can barely breathe. The mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone), meanwhile, who goes nameless, is clearly haunted by something. In the old farmhouse, a chair creaks late at night and drags across the floor when she’s alone. What haunts the family, especially the father, is unclear. There is no explanation given, but that doesn’t make the entity any less chilling. Within the first 15 minutes of the film, the mother chops off her fingers and hangs herself. The rest of the film focuses on Louise and Michael’s grief and the stress of looking after their dying father, who is tormented by the sinister entity.
There is little light in The Dark and the Wicked. Most of the interior shots are shadowy. Most of the rooms are unlit. After a family dinner, Louise sparks a smoke and sits on the porch with Michael. The surrounding woods and thick night feel like it could consume them. Even daytime shots of the sprawling farmland are gloomy. The sky is often gray, and the trees are bare. Everything about the film, even the house, feels cold and dark.
The scares and tension ramp up as the film progresses. The mother’s death in the first act is a gut punch, but the frights do not stop. There are scenes of spiders crawling out of the father’s mouth, a nurse that inflicts brutal pain upon herself, and a creepy little girl who knocks on the door, claiming to be a neighbor.
As for the acting, Ireland’s performance specifically deserves praise. The stress and grief nearly break her, and it’s heart-wrenching to watch. As she sits in her father’s room, puffing a smoke and looking out the window, her nerves are simply frayed. Her torment is compounded by the fact that she has no other family. When Michael tells Louise he’s leaving and returning home, she responds, “You’re my brother. You’re all I have left.” He retorts, “I have Becky. I have my girls. They’re my life.”
This isolation and realization that if her father dies, she’ll have little to no family left makes Louise a sympathetic character. She’s really the only relatable character in the film. Michael comes across as a jerk, especially in the film’s closing 30 minutes.
The Dark and the Wicked is a tough film to endure. There are few, if any, cracks of light during the runtime and very few likeable characters. There is a menacing presence that unleashes a world of grief and hurt upon a family. The film opens with a shocking death that sets the dreary tone for the rest of the film. It doesn’t get much easier after that.
Yet, it can be said that The Dark and the Wicked doesn’t sugarcoat how hard death is upon a family and how tough it is to confront mortality and the realization that our parents won’t always be there. There is a real feeling of helplessness that befalls the siblings, as they find their mother’s body swinging by a rope in a barn or sit by their father’s bedside, listening to his labored breathing.
The Dark and the Wicked isn’t for genre fans who like their horror with a little bit of laughter. It’s a tough watch, and its scares hit hard, sometimes out of nowhere. There are little to no moments of reprieve in the film. Bertino’s take on grief and mortality is unflinching. His use of setting and atmosphere enhances the feeling that there is no way out of the situation and whatever happens to the siblings will not be good. The Dark and the Wicked is a punishing take on death and how a small family responds to it.
The Dark and the Wicked is currently streaming On Demand and releases on Shudder on February 25.
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