2020 has been a kind year to horror fans, especially with films that have something to say. The Dark and the Wicked, the new film from The Strangers (2008) writer/director Bryan Bertino, makes a mark with its haunting images and fantastic lead, but finds itself a little jagged around the edges.
Two siblings, Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.), return to their Texas homestead to take care of their ailing parents as they are both on the decline and their farm starts to take a strange turn. Their lives quickly devolve as isolation and tragedy strike them to their cores, leaving them to fear not only for their parents, but for themselves.
It’s never fun when another film beats you to the punch, but Relic, another 2020 horror film, does just that. Both touch on the psychological fears of taking care of a loved one during their gradual passing, personifying its inner horror to the house and its surrounding areas.
Where Relic mostly stays introspective and ties the horror to the very house its characters find themselves trapped in and how it reflects on their mental state, The Dark and the Wicked instead externalizes and makes the pain of death an inevitability that is violent and envelops us all.
It’s a much more cynical view about feeling trapped, and its more violent nature goes along with that.
But there are issues of logic where the reasons for staying aren’t baked in very well. We’re given the reasons, but they’re fairly flimsy with the bizarre, creepy things they face almost on a daily level (made especially clear with the title cards announcing how many days it’s been). None of them are apparently enough to consider a hotel, or for full-time care of their father. It’s to keep everyone under the same roof to inflict the terror, but when the reasoning is paper thin, it leaves something to be desired.
There is also the issue of large swaths of the film relying on the tried-and-true horror tropes of lights turning on randomly, furniture moving, and odd noises outside. It’s been done to death and done a million times on top of that, and so they don’t do much beyond extend sequences until we get to the more creative and exciting moments.
But the main issue is how nebulous it all feels. It’s pretty explicit about what’s causing everything, especially later on, but the way in which it’s all done doesn’t quite add up. Is it about inflicting as much pain in the process, or is it about something else? It’s hard to tell, and everyone appears either too exhausted or shellshocked to seek out answers other than a phone call that just leaves you with more questions about how a character factors in.
Thankfully, though, the film is saved by its main star, Marin Ireland. She is giving the movie her all, and manages to elevate it through driving the crushing emotional toll being home brings her character. During the third act especially, Ireland sells the devastation and horror she faces but keeps the emotional connection to Louise’s parents intact, so that goodness and guilt become interesting character flaws.
There’s also the wonderful eye-catching images that catch you by surprise. The Dark and the Wicked takes advantage of its psychological bent to terrorize its characters with genuinely creepy visuals, some that are rather shocking and violent. These are the moments that may be few and far between, but do (very slightly) alleviate some of the movie’s other problems.
The Dark and the Wicked finds itself as a chilling invasion of the mind, but lacking in the physical terror it tries to muster. Marin Ireland elevates a lot of the proceedings, great as always, and some moments are particularly striking in their presentation. But I can’t help but wish there’s just a little more, something a little extra, to push this to the top.