Studio: RLJE Films/Shudder
Director: Bryan Bertino
Writer: Bryan Bertino
Producer: Bryan Bertino, Adrienne Biddle, Sonny Mallhi, Kevin Matusow
Stars: Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr., Julie Oliver-Touchstone, Lynne Andrews, Tom Nowicki, Xander Berkeley
Estranged siblings return to their family¡¯s farm to visit their troubled parents and discover a dark presence haunting the home.
Writer/director Bryan Bertino earned a healthy heap of name value with ¡°The Strangers¡± (review here), a film that, two decades later, remains the benchmark to beat for home invasion thrillers. Bertino¡¯s sudden stockpile of genre cred then saw an unexpected depletion with ¡°Mockingbird¡± (review here), a ¡°found footage¡± flop that sat on a Blumhouse shelf for several years only to be indifferently dropped on disinterested DTV audiences well past the first-person format¡¯s expiration date.
2016¡¯s ¡°The Monster¡± (review here) boomeranged Bertino back a bit. Favorably received on the whole, although not in a widespread way, the dark drama focused on its mother-daughter dynamic instead of action indicative of the title. Subdued suspense centering on family-related fears subsequently turned out a movie rooted in mood, which appears to be territory Bertino remains interested in exploring with ¡°The Dark and the Wicked.¡±
Louise, played by Judy Greer clone Marin Ireland, and her brother Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) can¡¯t remember the last time they visited their family farm. They¡¯re brought back by the impending death of their bedridden father and worrisome state of their struggling mother. On the night of their return, someone¡¯s severed fingers get chopped on a cutting board like carrots. The following morning, the siblings find a body hanging in the barn.
Through disturbing diary entries as well as ominous rumors from their father¡¯s nurse, Michael and Louise learn a malevolent presence possibly plagues mom and dad. Visions begin haunting brother and sister too. Michael witnesses a woman floating off the ground outside his bedroom window. Louise seemingly sees her father standing like a white-eyed zombie outside her shower, which shouldn¡¯t be possible since he¡¯s currently catatonic.
Oddness increases when a priest (Xander Berkeley) pays a visit. The Straker Family has never been religious. They don¡¯t even believe in God. Yet as the spiral of strangeness swirls everyone further into cerebral darkness, the priest warns you don¡¯t have to believe in the devil for his evil to be in your home.
As much as I adore ¡°The Strangers,¡± the disappointment brought by ¡°Mockingbird,¡± lack of lasting impact from ¡°The Monster,¡± and now the underwhelming nature of ¡°The Dark and the Wicked¡± warn me to be wary of future Bryan Bertino productions. My waning interest isn¡¯t exactly his fault. His work just doesn¡¯t appear to be arcing toward a personally appealing destination. As an artist, Bertino¡¯s progression demonstrates an increasing desire to experiment with atmosphere built around quiet family drama. But ¡°The Dark and the Wicked¡¯s¡± preference for themes over thrills makes what scant scares there are feel like tacked-on tropes, and it¡¯s difficult to connect emotionally when horror rings so hollow.
Few and far between frights barely register as faint echoes. Michael or Louise see something startling, turn their heads at another noise, then predictably find the strange sight vanished when they turn back. ¡°The Dark and the Wicked¡± does this repeatedly. It also incorporates phantom phone calls, apparitions stalking behind someone for a single second, high speed convulsions, and other clich¨¦s that haven¡¯t felt fresh in forty years.
Apt terms for describing ¡°The Dark and the Wicked¡± might include creepy, eerie, and haunting, preceded by a modifier such as mildly or occasionally. Those are distinctly different terms than scary, terrifying, or unnerving. In other words, the movie can be conveniently called a ¡°slow burn,¡± and one that leans heavily toward slow and not so much toward a burn.
¡°The Dark and the Wicked¡± is about being broken by grief, reckoning with estrangement, and dealing with the debilitating depression accompanying either end of abandonment. Accordingly, a certain degree of dourness is understandable. But every face in the film wears a troubled expression of someone who has either been crying for three hours straight or is perpetually on the verge of a devastating emotional breakdown, and it¡¯s a draining deterrent from audience engagement.
Even ancillary characters aren¡¯t exempt from contributing to the film¡¯s wearying effect. You can always tell how irrelevant an inclusion is when the script doesn¡¯t expend any effort assigning proper names to secondary speaking parts simply credited as ¡°Nurse,¡± ¡°Doctor,¡± ¡°Funeral Director,¡± and ¡°Young Girl.¡± I believe the nurse speaks two times. A farmhand named Charlie gets three opportunities. Like their similarly cursory counterparts who only appear in one scene however, their appearances are so brief, they can¡¯t bloom into tactile personalities whose fates are worth fretting about.
Horror films aren¡¯t required to reinvent. It¡¯s often enough to follow a by-the-book blueprint, which ¡°The Dark and the Wicked¡± does, as long as following those steps produces a reason to recommend the movie, which ¡°The Dark and the Wicked¡± does not do. There has to be a hook, notable name, defining element, or something distinguishable that results in a remark of some sort. While ¡°The Dark and the Wicked¡± isn¡¯t poorly produced, I simply don¡¯t see what would inspire anyone to tell someone else, ¡°you really ought to see this movie.¡±
Review Score: 45