Not all homecomings are warm and welcoming. There can be a suffocating madness to returning to where you grew up, especially when you’ve grown so far away from it. Yet this is only part of the horror that races ice cold through the veins of The Dark and the Wicked, one of the most buzzed-about offerings out of Fantasia 2020.
The Strangers’ Bryan Bertino writes and directs this horror movie, which centers on a pair of adult siblings who return to their parents’ farmhouse, where their father (Michael Zagst) is near death and their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) is crumbling in the face of it. The lives that Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) have left behind for a week are largely discarded in snags of conversation, about work, wife, and kids. Here, their identities are solely Daughter and Son, inheritors of all their parents possess, for better and worse.
Unmoored from their lives, Louise and Michael are initially confounded by their mother’s haunted demeanor. They suspect the trauma of watching her catatonic husband wither away has driven her to madness. But if this is madness, it is contagious. Soon, they too hear noises in the night and witness horrors they cannot explain. It appears their inheritance is not only a farm with sheep that bleat in terror of an unseen threat but also a sinister spirit that relishes in their torment.
Like Hereditary and Relic, The Dark and the Wicked uses haunted house horror elements to explore the terror of family ties. What if a curse is not earned but passed down? What if you are doomed to become your parents? What if hell is in your veins, damning you to agony?
With a slow-burn pace, Bertino guides us through the downward spiral of Louise and Michael, whose mourning turns into an immediate and merciless reckoning of their own mortality. In moments alone, each is haunted not only by the cruel creature that stalks the family farm but also by the fears of failure that threaten to consume them.
Bertino steeps this family drama in dread, brewing spine-tingling suspense that makes the steady chop chop chop of a knife cutting carrots feel like nails on a chalkboard. Again and again, he teases the audience with cues that something wicked this way comes. Then, he’ll gift you with a jump scare, allowing for a scream that will release some tension. Yet you are not freed from the gut-churning certainty that Bertino’s brand of nihilistic horror will lead to greater devastation and doom.
A sophisticated confidence is displayed in every step of The Dark and the Wicked, from its ruthlessly slow pacing to its eerie sound design, bursts of brutality, and the restraint of Ireland and Abbott. You may feel profoundly connected to Michael’s yearning to escape or Louise’s dedication to staying put. That’s thanks to a sharp script paired with performances that bring an earthy authenticity in a nightmarish scenario. These two won’t wail theatrically like the scared teens of countless slashers. They strive to stand their ground and struggle for reason in a world gone mad. These siblings fight to keep their autonomy even as family ties viciously tear them down.
My favorite thing about The Dark and the Wicked might be that you can practically smell this movie. The set design of the family homestead is rich with unvarnished wood walls. Shaved tree trunks protrude through the ground as if the wild outside world has slowly and irrevocably intruded. Death hangs in the air, literally as animal skulls adore walls and shelves. If you concentrate, you can breathe in the decay of the wood, the stench of fresh blood, and the stink of a human body rotting from the inside out. By suggesting these smells, Bertino expertly folds in another sense of this suffocating setting. It will rub your nerves raw.
At Fantasia, I’ve come to expect genre movies that are gleefully goofy, unapologetically outrageous, and deliciously scary. The Dark and the Wicked is none of the above. It’s straight-faced, grounded, and horrifying in a way that aims less to thrill and more to harrow. This is not just a tale of a haunted house. It is at its core about the familial legacies we cannot escape, no matter how far from home we may run.
The Dark And The Wicked made its International Premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival on August 28, 2020.
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