The Dark and the Wicked. 2020.
Directed & Written by Bryan Bertino.
Starring Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr., Xander Berkeley, Lynn Andrews, Julie Oliver-Touchstone, Tom Nowicki, & Michael Zagst.
Shotgun Shack Pictures / Unbroken Pictures / Traveling Picture Show Company
Not Rated / 95 minutes
The following essay contains SPOILERS!
You’ve been duly warned.
From the moment I saw The Strangers I was sold on Bryan Bertino. He took what could’ve been a mediocre premise and spun it into gold with a heavy atmosphere of suspense and constant despair. His followup Mockingbird is a found footage with slasher-like elements that I found to be a surprising chiller. I also enjoyed The Monster, which moved away from home invasion-slasher territory into a space where horror can act as a metaphor while also just being plain ole scary at the same time.
Now, Bertino’s back with The Dark and the Wicked— a goddamn nightmare.
A dying man’s wife is seeing terrifying visions on their farm. Their daughter Louise (Marin Ireland) turns up to help, along with her brother Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.), but soon the mother kills herself inexplicably. This leaves her grown children to look after their ill father. The family’s never been religious, yet Louise and Michael begin to see that their mother was suddenly singing Christian hymns and, worse, seeing some kind of devil. And it’s only a matter of time before that devil reveals itself to them, too.
The Dark and the Wicked is bleak and grim from start to finish, leaning hard into an oppressive atmosphere that offers no hope, not a glimmer of light at the end of its dark tunnel. In fiction that deals with demons, regardless of whether it involves possession, so often Christianity battles and even outright defeats evil. Bertino doesn’t have time for such a depiction of good versus evil, neither is he interested in telling a tale of evil that’s easily defeated. What his story does is present a vision of evil that’s incapable of being defeated, indifferent to belief and non-belief alike— an evil that’s as inescapable as mortal death.
Something significant about the underlying dread of The Dark and the Wicked is the way Bertino’s screenplay subverts the natural order of life. Yes, children normally bury their parents eventually. In this story Louise and Michael aren’t just burying their mother, and preparing to eventually bury their father, they’re trying to protect their father from a sinister presence. Usually it’s parents protecting their kids from bumps in the night and monsters under the bed. Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. deliver stunning, raw performances as a brother and sister barely able to keep it together while experiencing the inexplicable. Too many times siblings portrayed onscreen don’t actually seem like they’re related. Ireland and Abbott feel like a genuine brother-sister pair. Their pain feels real, so do their disagreements. It’s extra troubling then to watch them unravel respectively while coming up against the horrific thing haunting the farm.
Christianity has overt and subtle roles in Bertino’s film. A Bible quote from Isaiah (34:14) feels like it almost describes the story: “The desert creatures will meet with the wolves, the hairy goat also will cry to its kind; the night creatures will settle there and find themselves a resting place.” More subversion in the story comes from the demonic thing lurking on the family’s land. There’s a sense of mockery from the presence in the way it attacks those who rely on Christianity. Although the family was never religious, the mother seems to have started praying and singing hymns as an attempt at beating back the darkness crowding around herself and her husband. We hear her singing bits and pieces of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” several times. Later, before she kills herself, she chops off her fingers. This feels like a grim alternative reading of Matthew 5:30, as if the demon’s using the tool being used against it, subverting religious belief and turning it back upon this poor old woman. Similarly, the nurse who’s been looking after the father is a believer. It’s when she lights a Virgin Mary candle next to his bed that she feels the wrath of the sinister entity. Like a punishment for believing her Christian faith could ever possibly stop what’s coming. People often say that if you believe in God you must also inherently believe in the Devil.
But what if there is no God, only devils and demons?
Perhaps there’s only evil. Or, perhaps evil is stronger than good after all and can’t be defeated by non-belief, nor Christianity or any other religion. There’s a cosmic horror feeling to Bertino’s story. The screenplay touches on ideas of human insignificance in comparison to something much greater than ourselves, something indifferent to belief in religion that cares only about taking souls from “whoever it wants.” After Michael’s fed up with the strange events occurring all around he and his sister he says: “We can‘t change this, we don‘t matter.” He has a grim reckoning, though believes he can escape it. He’s sadly mistaken, and when he realises this it’s far too late.
There’s also a potential interpretation of the film that advocates agnosticism over atheism in regards to the possibility of evil. Atheists believe in the comfort and safety of non-belief. Like Michael, they say “You‘re not real” to the demons and ghosts of religion, and they’re sure this keeps them safe because something that isn’t real can never hurt them. But if there is something beyond what we comprehend, if someday there’s proof of entities which defy what we’re sure is human knowledge and logic, a lack of/refusal to believe will not save us. It’ll only serve to leave us deeply susceptible to the terrors of the unknown. It’s why I prefer agnosticism to atheism because if demons start creeping around my house I won’t be too proud to shout out my belief before finding a new place to rent.
The Dark and the Wicked is another awesome piece of work from Bryan Bertino. I feel like each of his films, while very different, have a distinctive atmosphere of dread, and were I shown a film going in without knowing it was his I’d still be able to tell. More than visual aesthetic or directing style, he’s capable of drawing out intense performances from his actors that pull you into his stories. Ireland and Abbott give everything they’ve got, as does the always solid Xander Berkeley who turns up for a while to give off a severely creepy vibe. Their dedicated work combined with a story that slowly eats away at you inside makes for unnerving horror.
Many who’ve seen The Dark and the Wicked at Fantasia have been asking the same thing: why so grim, Mr. Bertino? Personally, I love it. At the start of this essay I mused about horror films involving demons or possession, the majority revolving around Christian theology. So often they’re yawn-inducing because 9 out of 10 times we see Christian ritual eventually win, or Christianity’s at least partly effective in battling against demonic attack. Bertino looks at an evil so dark and so brutally oppressive there’s nothing that can save us, no god of any sort whose power can ward it off, and he pulls not a single punch doing it.