When The Strangers was released in 2008, it looked like the beginning of a major horror career for writer-director Bryan Bertino, who created one of the most intense, unsettling movies of the past 20 years. But Bertino struggled to follow up his initial success and to recapture the acclaim of his debut. It was six years before his follow-up, the disappointing found footage-style thriller Mockingbird, was dumped onto VOD, although 2016’s The Monster was more of a return to form, thanks to a gripping lead performance from Zoe Kazan. Bertino comes even closer to capturing the bleak brilliance of The Strangers with his latest, The Dark and the Wicked, another nihilistic story about an isolated family under siege from terrifying forces.
Here, those forces are supernatural, although it’s never quite explained what sort of entity may be possessing the elderly father of siblings Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.), who return to the rural family farm against the vehement objections of their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone). Their father is bedridden and essentially comatose, and their mother seems to have lost her grip on reality during the time she’s spent caring for him. It’s not long before she appears to succumb to her suicidal impulses, leaving Louise and Michael alone with their dying father.
At first they dismiss their mother’s assertions (set down in a diary full of unhinged rants) that their father has been taken over by an evil force, but soon they’re experiencing the same disturbing phenomena, their sanity being whittled away by a malevolent spirit inhabiting the house. As he did in The Strangers, Bertino lays out the horrors slowly and methodically, making them inescapable for the main characters. The images are often gruesome, and Bertino doesn’t let the audience look away, steadily pointing his camera at fingers being chopped up or at a bonfire of goat carcasses. The long take of the mother’s body swinging from barn rafters as goats are herded below her is as beautiful as it is disquieting.
Although Louise and Michael try to apply rational thought to their predicament, attempting to move their father to a hospital and relying on the nurse (Lynn Andrews) who comes to take care of him, their own grip on reality soon slips as well. A nearly unrecognizable Xander Berkeley makes a strong impression in a few scenes as a priest who may have been trying to help the siblings’ mother, or may have pushed her further toward evil. As the movie progresses, the characters have become so traumatized that even the shrill ringing of an old-fashioned landline phone invokes terror.
Bertino never lets up on that terror, and the movie is all the more horrifying for its lack of explanation. Bertino draws on real-world fears of aging, dying alone, and being weighed down by caring for ailing parents, and he turns what should be a cozy symbol of familial warmth into a forbidding deathtrap. Ireland gives Louise a sense of weary regret that’s exacerbated by the terrors she faces, while Abbott’s performance is more subdued, with Michael as the husband and father whose life is more stable until he returns to his childhood home.
Both actors make the horror-movie traumas feel personal, and what makes Bertino’s work stand out is not so much how scary it is, but how relentlessly it conveys the despair and helplessness of human existence. It’s not easy to confront those feelings, but Bertino makes sure his audience has no choice.