By Nadia Dalimonte
Marin Ireland in The Dark and the Wicked (2020)
Chopping carrots hits differently now. The latest horror film from Bryan Bertino of The Strangers fame lives up to its title. The Dark and the Wicked is a deeply unsettling story whereby the home intruder is a demonic spirit that whispers unspeakable things into people’s minds. The story takes place on a secluded farm inhabited by a family who come together to care for a dying member. Death is near, but not in the way that they expect. The darkness that grabs hold of this family is a constant presence made clear from the beginning of the film, and it’s a presence that mutates on different levels as the story progresses. The spirit latches onto a particular vulnerability that each character possesses.
Disturbing occurrences happen in the span of one week, with title cards displayed for each day, and the madness gets wilder deeper into the week. On the worst Monday of their lives, siblings Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) arrive at the family farm to assist their mother and be there for their father (Michael Zagst) on his deathbed. Tense family dynamics are palpable right through the door. Their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) gives them a frosty welcome. She is grieving her husband slipping away, and neither sibling knows how to approach the subject with her. But there is a lot more to Mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) than meets the eye, as her ominous diary entry would prove, and each passing day is more revealing. She’s been suffering another loss, that of her mind, to something or someone in the house that is dead set on infesting her husband's soul.
The director lingers heavily on characters from behind, as if someone is watching them. The camerawork makes for a completely nerve-wracking experience of waiting to see or trying to prepare for what’s on the other side of the room. It’s an interesting choice because as the camera lingers on the characters, and sometimes on objects, threatening shadowy figures show up matter-of-factly. Sometimes it takes away from the threatening tone being established, and sometimes it works wonders. One chilling scene early on shows a shadow simply stood in a darkened hallway as a character walks by without noticing. Objects are also given focus, as if a spirit is lurking inside. There’s a stunning, eerie shot of Louise and Michael standing still in a room full of mannequins.
There is an unrelenting sense of dread that washes over all the characters, one by one. The film builds on each of their personal fears slowly being manipulated. Some characters fall immediately into the spirit’s grasp while others can fight off the fear a little longer. In any case, there is no hiding place good enough to conceal the fear that lives within. For the protagonists, the fear of losing their parents is immense. Louise feels the added terror of being alone should something happen to her estranged brother. All of this fear manifests through spine-chilling imagery, specific to each character, that gets the scare job done to say the absolute least.
The strong use of shadows, lighting, and haunting imagery bears a striking reminder of Ari Aster’s Hereditary. The two films are dramatically different on the whole, and this is not a quality comparison of the two, but there are some similarities in terms of using those features as effective reveal techniques and manipulating imagery to evoke emotion. A parallel can also be drawn thematically in that here is a dysfunctional family trying to grieve as a wicked force latches itself onto them, preying on vulnerability. Plenty of intriguing questions are raised about how quickly fear can spread over the psyche. Committed performances by a talented cast, with Marin Ireland being the MVP, bring an emotionally resonating layer to the afterthought of this nightmarish film. With the exception of some obvious-looking CGI in the final act, and an ineffective final scene, The Dark and the Wicked is like watching a waking nightmare unfold with no escape.