Mythology and fairy tales can be seen as a way to explain the world, to make sense out of the unknowable or inscrutable. The ancient Greeks explained the changing of the seasons with the myth of Persephone’s abduction to the underworld. The darkness of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales can be seen as a way of explaining the dangers of adulthood to children. In a way, horror films are our modern mythology, often distilling complex and difficult concepts into fantastical narratives of the supernatural. Our inner demons become our outer demons. This is especially true with The Dark and the Wicked, a bleak and quietly searing mediation on death and loss.
The patriarch of a rural farm family is slowly dying. Against the advice of his wife, his children Louise (Malin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) have come to visit and possibly pay their last respects. Almost as soon as they arrive, they realize something is wrong. Their mother is terrified of an unknown presence, and strange, unsettling things begin to happen around them. It soon becomes clear that a dark and sinister force is stalking the family, and it won’t stop until it claims them all.
Writer/director Bryan Bertino has made an intensely focused and localized type of film. Nearly the entire film takes place on the family farm, and the story is told almost entirely from the point of view of Louise and Michael. Aside from a farm hand named Charlie, they’re the only characters that are even given proper names in the credits. This makes the film both specific and personal while also being universal at the same time. This might be Louise and Michael’s story, but these events and situations are highly relatable in many ways (and on a very personal level as far as I’m concerned).
These qualities go very far in helping to make the film as unsettling and insidious as it is. While it has its share of jump scares, it finds its true power in how it slowly sinks its hooks into the psyche. It draws the viewer in bit by bit, so gradually that you don’t realize you’re in the thick of it until it’s too late. This is exactly what happens to Louise and Michael, and the audience is right there with them the whole time.
What’s amazing about Bertino’s film, however, might be how well-woven the themes and metaphors are into it. While the film can be appreciated solely on a surface level, as there’s plenty of demonic set pieces to entertain horror connoisseurs, there is also the deeper meaning that makes the film truly captivating. Underneath the hauntings is an exploration of the human mind’s need to rationalize death and grief. Of the need to put a face to an all-consuming elemental force and a need to explain why we lose ourselves in the journey to deal with it. As someone who lost both his parents to slow disease, there is a strange bit of comfort in the idea that there is some dark force responsible for this kind of suffering and that it isn’t just a cruel, senseless trick of nature.
All three members of the family deal with the situation differently. The mother, a lifelong atheist, has suddenly become highly religious, convinced that evil forces are trying to claim her husband. Louise is there to be support for her family and to hopefully find a way to ease their suffering. Michael sees his presence there as more of an obligation, keeping his emotions at a distance until he can no longer ignore them.
Bertino handles all three characters adroitly, navigating their individual paths in distinct but interconnected ways. He plays with a few concepts that don’t get explored perhaps as well as they should, like the fine line between religious zealotry and mental illness exhibited in the mother’s behavior, or the push/pull dynamic between Michael and Louise that gets tested as the supernatural events pile up. The overall themes are there however, although they aren’t always clear until after the fact.
Bertino isn’t willing to hold the audience’s hand through this journey, and that may turn some people off from his story. This is not a Conjuring-style haunting. No name or origin is ever given for the darkness surrounding the family, and the characters are fairly reactionary to its presence. The conversation revolves around how to escape it rather than how to fight it. This can be perceived as a lack of agency, but the film’s power is found in the response to events that seemingly have no basis in reality. After all, putting a name to death and dying rarely does little to remove its more terrifying and uncompromising aspects.
Beyond the metaphorical and metaphysical aspects of the film, this is a solidly-constructed piece of cinema. Bertino’s eye is keen, and his knack for capturing and populating his frames is superb. There are some truly breath-taking shots of the wilderness around the farm, a bit of lush beauty in an otherwise bleak and gray story. He’s helped along greatly by Tom Schrader’s score, a quasi-tonal sonic landscape of dark piano melodies, discordant strings, found sounds, and tape delays. It feels as if the haunting is so complete that it’s even managed to possess the soundtrack.
Malin Ireland and Michael Abbott, Jr., both do an excellent job as Louise and Michael. Both actors give a performance so natural and lived-in that it becomes sort of frightening in its own way. It feels as if we’re watching home movies, forgetting that we’re watching two actors give a performance. They play off of each other very well, especially as the tension mounts and their responses and emotions heighten. Both character at first come off as cagey and sort of blank, but as the supernatural activity increases, their guards slip and we see more and more of each character’s true face. The only downside to Bertino’s intense focus on Louise and Michael is that the rest of the cast doesn’t get much of a chance to make an impression, even though there are good performances all around. The main exception to this is Xander Berkeley as a mysterious and mysteriously antagonistic priest who’s screen time is cut way too short.
Bryan Bertino has created a grounded tale of fear that has the power of myth. It’s reminiscent of some of the best works of Stephen King, a tale of Americana wrought through with cultural, folkloric dread. This is a terrifying bit of natural light, an exploration of some of humanity’s most intimidating concepts that also works as a straight-up bit of horror cinema. The most wicked thing about it is how it continues to haunt your mind after the final frame in the most satisfyingly macabre ways.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+