The Dark and The Wicked (2020)
Written & Directed by Bryan Bertino
I don’t think I like Bryan Bertino’s films. This is the third movie by this director I’ve watched, with the others being The Strangers and The Monster. He simply has no depth to his work. It’s all surface level, atmospheric, yes but with no meaningful character development. The Dark and The Wicked may be his absolute worst film to date. I love horror, especially slow-burn horror; however, it must be building to something. I need to understand and sympathize with the characters to feel something for them when they are tormented. We learn almost nothing about these characters, and so we ultimately don’t care.
Louise and Michael have returned home to help their mother as she cares for their dying father. The couple lives on a remote goat farm in the middle of an unnamed rural area in America. Mother is insistent that the adult siblings leave and not stay the night. She is aware something evil is around their home and the land, waiting on the father to die. Louise quickly begins to have surreal encounters with this evil manifesting itself in different forms, almost taunting her and Michael as it floats around the edges waiting to consume the father’s soul. The film’s biggest problem is that this presence’s motivations are never made clear and end up being all over the place. It taunts people to kill themselves, but we never understand why, as the movie keeps reiterating how obsessed the evil is with claiming the father’s soul.
Bryan Bertino would make a fantastic cinematographer and production designer. He creates environments and moods where you can feel a strong sense of dread. His greatest weakness is in his scripts, which have literally zero substance. The Dark and The Wicked is best described as slow-burn jumpscares akin to the Blumhouse movies but trying to sell itself as more elevated than that. My question throughout my viewing kept being, “Why?” I’m not a viewer who needs everything spelled out for me, but there needs to at least some hints to motivation or cause when you deal with supernatural elements. The Strangers could get away with ambiguity because people can just be sick and homicidal. But here, there is a persistent haunting with a goal laid out. So, I think the film was obligated to drop some clues as to why this was happening.
The mother has a journal that Louise begins to pour over, and I kept expecting there would be some clues dropped there of sin in the family history or an act committed by their father that brought this evil presence into their lives. Nope. It’s basically just their mother going on and on about how scared she is and that the devil is out there waiting for them. Louise and Michael are estranged from each other and their parents. That would be a significant foothold to flesh these characters out in some way and make the evil representative of why they aren’t closer. It doesn’t have to be the father abused or molested them; I can see how that might be cliche. But there are other routes the story could go so that we gave some shit about what was happening on screen.
The film’s opening sequence perked my interest as it planted the seeds of some great dark presence lingering on the edges, waiting to pounce. But that’s all the movie ever does. It keeps reminding us something is out there and then doesn’t push the narrative further. The presence can take multiple forms and taunt, but why? The entity appears to an old farmhand that’s worked for the family for years, and the being takes on Louise’s appearance. I thought for a moment, oh, is this hinting that the farmhand abused Louise and her parents ignored as what often happens in small, close-knit communities? Welp, the film never explores this scene any further, so we’re left to wonder.
Bertino wants to make a movie that shakes viewers to their core, but he doesn’t understand pacing or character enough to do that. There are scares in this film that happen in such succession to each other that you get overwhelmed to the point of confusion instead of fear. There’s a nighttime visit followed by a phone call that just had me shaking my head. There are also way too many moments where a character sees the entity, turns away, and looks back to find it is gone. And that is meant to spook the audience. I think Bertino has an excellent starting point for a horror movie here, and I loved the tone and setting. But this feels like a rough draft instead of a complete story. The psychological aspects of child and parents are never explored, and so I just sat there when the film concluded, wondering what the point of the whole thing had been.
Update: Wow, never had a review received like this. Apparently, whoever runs The Dark and the Wicked’s social media presence woke up cranky? They didn’t like it when I spoke up for myself, either. They deleted this tweet but I got in just in time 😉