The Dark and the Wicked (2020)

DECEMBER 11, 2020


I had a chance to see The Dark and the Wicked at the drive-in a couple months ago, but that keyword "Dark" in the title had me opt to wait until it hit Blu-ray, because I didn't want another Relic situation. So it amused me that the two films also shared a similar plot, of a woman going to take car of a sick parent and having to deal with some kind of supernatural curse that is targeting them. A double feature would be interesting, I think - the two aren't so similar that you'd be feeling like the second movie was a repeat, but it'd be interesting to see how the shared themes of feeling guilty about not taking more care of a parent in their twilight can produce very different movies.

Here, Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) are 40ish siblings who return to their parents' home to help their mother take care of their dying father, who is bedridden and seems to be on his last breaths. The mom - who is acting odd - had apparently told them not to come, which at first seems like more of a "You needn't have bothered" kind of motherly hand-waving, but it doesn't take long to realize this was actually one final attempt at parental protection, as whatever is affecting her quickly infects her adult children as well. Visions and nightmares come with increasing frequency, and as the days go by (the film takes place over a week, with "Monday", "Tuesday", etc title cards being used as a sort of countdown to let us know things will just get worse) it gets harder and harder for them to convince each other or themselves that there is something evil in the house and may claim them as it did their parents.

After the flesh and blood villains of The Strangers and The Monster, writer/director Bryan Bertino tackles something a little less tangible here - the antagonist is some kind of demon/devil, but one that is never fully explained (this isn't The Conjuring where such monsters need to be identified and then given a crappy prequel film). Too many things happen for the movie to be chalked up as a "perhaps they're just imagining things" kind of explanation - it would require at least six people to be having a shared hallucination (and not all in the same space), but there is a Shining/Session 9 type feel to the proceedings all the same, where a few key scenes could indeed be a case of someone's emotions (in this case, guilt) being manifested into traditional horror movie scares and situations.

Long story short, unless I'm missing something, this isn't an "it's up to interpretation" kind of film, but one where you're simply not going to get all of the answers. At times this is frustrating; there's a scene where Louise calls someone she had just seen the day before only for them to be confused why she was calling (as if they had NOT, in fact, been there) but there's no followup, despite the call introducing yet another mystery to the proceedings. But for the most part it works quite well as a moody/atmospheric chiller. There are a number of terrific freaky moments, including what may be the definitive "someone is chopping vegetables and gets their finger" scene in horror history (not hyperbole) and a moment that might remind you of Hereditary, but doesn't make it any less unnerving.

Also, it was interesting to watch relatively soon after The Monster (in reality a few years passed in between them but I only finally got around to Monster a couple months ago), because that film used (perhaps a few too many) flashbacks to explain the fractured relationship between its characters, but here Bertino relies on the performances and certain pauses in the lines to fill in those blanks. When Michael asks Louise if she still works at the post office, she says "Not... anymore!" in a manner that suggests she got fired for suddenly taking off to take care of her parents without much notice, and in that same conversation, a quick mention of neglecting to call Michael's daughter (her niece) for her birthday tells us that not only are they estranged from their parents, but they themselves aren't exactly close these days. What caused all this isn't explained (or important, best I can tell) but what matters is how we get the idea with a minimum of words, while claustrophobically keeping us in their present misery.

If I could wave a magic wand and fix something in the movie, it wouldn't be the unanswered questions, or an unintelligible line from the mother that the subtitles neglected to translate for me (they only use the perfectly clear end part of her line, as if whoever was doing the copy couldn't understand her either). No, it would be the digital blood that rears its (very) ugly head during just about every violent moment, taking me out of it every time. Sometimes digital blood can be done well, but there isn't much evidence to support that here, and it is a major distraction during a handful of what are otherwise very well-done moments. I know it's a low budget production and it seems like they were shooting on an actual location, so I'm sure there was some element of "we can't mess the place up or afford multiple takes" to blame for using it in the first place, but after all these years of improvements I know it can at least be done more effectively.

Speaking of doing things effectively, I must give a shoutout to Xander Berkeley (and his hair/makeup people) who pops up as a strange priest, because I didn't even fully recognize him. "Dude's got a Xander Berkeley thing going on," I thought to myself, but convinced it wasn't actually him because he looked so "off" while giving me serious "Kane from Poltergeist II" vibes. He's one of those actors who can always be counted on to make a memorable character even if there isn't much to work with, but this is the first time he legitimately disappeared in the role, as character actors traditionally do. Also, the girl from Monster showed up for an equally brief bit, and managed to produce a few chills in her brief appearance. It's got a relatively big cast for a Bertino film, but they tend to make their mark and exit after a few minutes - it's pretty much just Ireland and Abbott's show.

Whatever narrative (and VFX!) lapses the movie might have, it evens out - and then some - with its nearly undiluted sense of dread. Think of the tone of the best Ti West stuff (so, House of the Devil) and Ben Wheatley's Kill List and you'll have the right idea of what Bertino was going for here, and pretty much aced it. And I was indeed glad I waited for a home viewing; even though it has its share of distractions, I assume I would have missed out on most of its power at a drive-in with people wandering around in front of me, headlights, etc. Not to mention the sound; the score by Tom Schraeder and accompanying sound design did a lot of the heavy lifting here, and deserves a proper surround presentation as opposed to a tinny FM broadcast. The murky image probably would have made the digital blood look better though, natch.

What say you?

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