Review: The Dark and the Wicked — Fantasia Festival 2020

The Dark and the Wicked is screening as part of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival program.

Bryan Bertino’s The Dark and the Wicked, his first feature film since 2016’s The Monster, is in one sense a story of grief and loss. Two siblings, Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.), return to their parents’ Texas farmhouse, as it has become clear that their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) is struggling to care for their ailing father (Michael Zagst). Following an untimely death, Louise and Michael have to maneuver grief, while also contending with an evil presence that is haunting the farm.

It is certainly a workable premise for a moody horror flick, but the film ultimately fails to coalesce its spiritual horror with its grounded tale of loss. The characters trying to reconcile their relationships with their parents often takes a backseat to a largely unexplained demonic phenomenon, which hovers around the cast of characters, coming to them in familiar forms and inching them toward suicidal tendencies. After a while, the protagonists’ emotional states plateau, and the film becomes less about the realism of grieving and more about the heightened supernatural presence of the diegesis.

And, frankly, the latter is simply less engaging. The white-eyed, demonic entity provides enough things-that-go-bump-in-the-night style scares, and its power ultimately leads to some grisly imagery. But this all comes off as old hat.

Some of Bertino’s blocking and shot choices are interesting. Wide shots with smooth pans are an adequate mood-setter, and the use of offscreen space makes for at least one effective set piece. But the overall product is lacking in thematic substance. Thematic material is established, but it is not properly developed. As a result, the film comes off at times as a vacant exercise in abject imagery.

I was neither a fan of The Strangers nor The Monster, but both showed Bertino attempting something different with familiar material. The Strangers provided tension with its air of realism, where there is a heinousness to the idea of random people attacking random people with no motive. On the other end of the spectrum, there is something compelling to a metaphorical “monster” becoming externalized in The Monster.

These films use horror conventions as a basic rulebook from which Bertino presents unique, if not flawed, variations. The Dark and the Wicked also utilizes horror conventions—these of a more demonic variety—but does not define a ruleset. As such, Bertino’s scares come at random and rarely play into the reality of the characters’ situation. The set pieces come off frenetic, as a result, and they don’t pack much of a punch.

There is enough abject imagery to sate those looking for something approaching the nihilism of The Strangers, but it is in service of a largely unexplained diegetic evil which is faceless and bloodthirsty. Given the lack of narrative reasoning for this evil, this reads as abjection for abjection’s sake, ugliness without motivation.

I am perfectly fine with film’s that display abject cruelty. I think Funny Games, for example, is a great film (so does Bertino, it seems, given how similar The Strangers is to Haneke’s film). But a film like Funny Games uses abjection for a narrative and thematic purpose. I fail to find such a purpose in The Dark and the Wicked.

 

The Dark and the Wicked: C

 


As always, thanks for reading!

—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)

 

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