We open to a remote Texan farm at dusk. Mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) cares for the home while her dressmaking mannequins gaze on sinisterly in the background. She checks on the goats outside, who seem a little restless, and then retires back to the farm where she tends to the needs of her bedridden husband, David (Michael Zagst).
Later that night while preparing vegetables in the kitchen, Mother is distracted by a scraping sound behind her. She turns to discover a chair has inexplicably moved across the floor. Well, that could be construed as being ominous.
And so, this prologue all played out, the story begins proper: "Monday".
Siblings Michael (Michael Abbott Junior) and Louise (Marin Island) arrive at their parents' farm early that morning. They're visiting because their dad David is desperately ill and sadly not likely to recover. The family appears to have grown apart in recent years.
A largely uneventful day follows, David being asleep in bed with wires plugged into his nose and all, and Mother seeming awfully melancholic. Come the evening, Mother cooks a meal for Michael and Louise; the three of them sit around the kitchen table, the siblings trying to make conversation but Mother proves difficult to work with - she has a look of defeat in her eyes and it's hard to get anything more than two words out of her. When the kitchen door creaks open by itself, this startles Louise somewhat ... but Mother simply responds with a look of deep despondency.
Once everyone else has retired for the night, Mother - following another incident of the chair moving of its own accord (heard but not seen) - takes to an unexpected spot of self-harming in the kitchen.
Which rolls us on to ... "Tuesday".
Michael and Louise both rise to discover the bloody aftermath of Mother's nocturnal auto-mutilation in the kitchen sink, and frantically begin searching the farm's grounds for her. They find her, but sadly it appears she's taken her own life.
David's home nurse (Lynn Andrews) arrives at the house. After offering her condolences to Michael and Louise, she reveals that Mother would often sit at David's bedside whispering ... but not necessarily to him. "It was like there was someone else, someone here", the nurse troublingly proclaims.
Things get even more discomfiting a little later in the day when Louise takes a shower, and is disturbed by a dead-eyed David walking in on her and pissing himself. She screams for Michael's assistance ... of course, when he arrives, David is nowhere to be seen. Indeed, upon inspection, he's still laid comatose in his bed with tubes wedged in his nostrils.
The day ends with Michael finding Mother's diary and reading aloud the last day's entry to Louise: "I know he's there in the darkness ... he's killing David ... he can't breathe anymore, there's nothing I can do to stop that. Devil, devil, devil, devil ... He wants David's soul".
"Thursday" finds Louise delving further into Mother's diary, learning more about how she apparently believed a malevolent spirit was trying to take David away from her. Moreover, Louise's dark visions intensify, such as when she sees a spider emerging from David's gasping mouth - something that soon disappears once Michael enters the room.
Come the end of the day though, when Michael retires early, his bedroom light keeps mysteriously turning itself on. He also sees a vision of Mother floating outside his window, coupled with the brief sensation of hearing her singing in his bedroom. So now he's getting a little spooked too.
By the time "Friday" arrives - the point where Michael was originally planning on leaving - we're near-enough at the midway point of the film. And I've made it a rule for myself to not give out spoilers beyond this juncture.
Suffice it to say, things don't get any easier for the increasingly unsettled siblings. The arrival of a local priest (Xander Berkeley) backing up the claims in Mother's diary entries doesn't help to calm their nerves. The supernatural occurrences heighten in their prevalence, and a subsequent telephone call to the aforementioned priest throws more confusion into the mix ...
THE DARK AND THE WICKED is the fourth film from writer/director Bryan Bertino, whose biggest hit to date remains his 2008 feature debut THE STRANGERS. WICKED was originally due to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, in the spring of 2020. Obviously COVID-19 had other ideas, and that public unveiling was scrapped. The release date was consequently put back and I believe it was August before critics first got their chance to see the film, via the Fantasia International Film Festival - an online event for the first time ever. For everyone else, I'm happy to report that WICKED is now available exclusively to Shudder's online streaming service.
Shot on Bertino's own family farm in Texas, the setting is one of the film's strongest assets. A naturally creepy and isolated location, the home and its grounds are reeking with Gothic mood from the get-go. Aided by Tristan Nyby's atmospheric cinematography, every shot is beautifully framed and considered. Tom Schraeder's nicely mournful score is also of note, adding greatly to the autumnal tone set out by Bertino's deliberate pacing, his actors' low-key performances and the aforementioned aesthetic qualities.
THE DARK AND THE WICKED is without doubt Bertino's most accomplished and mature film to date. It builds steadily, never rushing in its journey to a climax fitting of the dark ambience felt throughout. It's easy to read the film as being an essay on facing the death of a parent square-on, accepting that mortality has an expiry date, the prospect of loss and the processes of grief and guilt which begin before your loved one's inevitable death has even occurred. There's certainly a lot of angst-ridden soul-searching done during the film, but it's also clear from an early juncture that something more ethereal and insidious is also present.
This grief-porn, if you will, seems to be something of a trend in horror films of late. WICKED thankfully isn't as oppressively dour as HEREDITARY and yet lacks the subtle, clever humour of something like ANYTHING FOR JACKSON - two other films that also deal with familial loss and its subsequent tensions. I'm yet to see the recent RELIC but I understand that's another film that thrashes out a similar theme, and is said to make a good double-bill with Bertino's effort.
Performances are strong across the board, but it's Island who deserves top honours as the film's heart and soul: she's the one we grow to truly empathise with. She goes through a wide gamut of emotions - strength, apathy, guilt, sorrow, defiance etc - and conveys each one with unerring conviction.
There are a few jump-scares along the way but, for the large part, Bertino relies more on incremental dread and the creepy atmosphere. Perhaps it's because of the lack of humour, of any relief whatsoever, the unremittingly dark tone, that at times this film ran the risk of going overboard in this department: the sinister goats; animal skulls adorning the farm's walls; moody night-time shots with off-kilter angles; eerie string arrangements on the score; mannequins lurking in the shadows; the jarring sound design - it could be argued that it's all laughably desperate to bring on the scares right from the start. As is increasingly common in these rurally-set horror films of late, homeowners seem unusually keen to save on their energy bills and get by with as little lighting in their houses as possible. The more cynical viewer could put forward a case for WICKED being "horror 101"; it is, however, an agreeably serious and considered genre piece in the main ... if you can keep that cynicism at bay, that is.
As mentioned earlier in my review, THE DARK AND THE WICKED is streaming exclusively on Shudder at present.
The film is presented in full 1080p HD and in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. It looks superb: sharp detail, filmic depth, clean visuals, deep blacks, true colours. The English stereo soundtrack is equally impressive, clear and consistent for the duration. At 95 minutes and 36 seconds in length, the film is also fully uncut.
Bryan Bertino comes of age with THE DARK AND THE WICKED, his most mature and accomplished film to date. While it doesn't quite achieve greatness - as mentioned above, it tries a little too hard and consequently throws a few too many cliches our way - it is a good horror yarn, and may well be the best thing Bertino puts his name to.
I definitely recommend checking it out if you have Shudder.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Directed by Bryan Bertino|