“She told us not to come.” Such is the refrain of Bryan Bertino’s “The Dark and the Wicked” or, at least, of his two main characters, siblings stuck in a house of horrors that they really, really shouldn’t have returned to. No, they shouldn’t have come, but Bertino’s striking opening act makes a fine argument for why they did, while creepily teasing why it’s going to end so very badly for them. Still, despite a strong start, Bertino’s grim and gruesome “The Dark and the Wicked” never coalesces into anything more than a collection of chilling images and a paper-thin logic.
That doesn’t stop star Marin Ireland from doing her damndest to pull it all together, as her performance alone teases a more effective film, one in which the shaky bridge between its religious-tinged trauma and very human grief transforms into something with real power. Even when the film gives itself over to gross-out gags and hints at an overall mythology that never emerges, Ireland holds steady, turning in a spine-tingling performance that delivers the emotional weight the rest of the film so strangely lacks.
Set on a desolate Texas farm — reportedly Bertino’s own — “The Dark and the Wicked” kicks off with all the icky tension one would expect from the “Strangers” filmmaker. Creepy noises abound (or is that just the wind?), the farm’s goat population seems perpetually on edge (the film’s supporting goat stars deserve some sort of special kudos; they’re fantastic), and the unnamed matriarch (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) is constantly chopping vegetables far too close to her own digits. (Bertino, at least, doesn’t skimp on taking that trope into fresh territory later on.)
The feeling that something is not quite right pervades the film’s opening moments, and Bertino’s signature affection for shadowy doorways and people ominously standing in them (an obsession that lent his breakout film “The Strangers” such indelible imagery that it literally led its marketing campaign) finds plenty of outlet in the creaky farmhouse. Mother is not alone there, though her unnamed husband (Michael Zagst) hasn’t been one with the living for quite some time. As he nears the end of his life, bed-ridden and mostly uncommunicative, the pair’s two adult children, Louise (Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.), have returned to say goodbye.
What follows is a less graceful meditation on the corrosive power of grief (done with such skill in this summer’s vaguely similar “Relic”) and more an excuse to play around with possession trauma. “It’s not…what you think,” Mother tells Michael early on as the already fraught situation starts to careen out of control, and that’s true enough, but it’s also perhaps not what Bertino thinks either. Early hints at a deeper, sicker story never pan out into something that makes much sense, and that’s less a referendum on the ephemeral nature of religion (which becomes a focal point of the story, including a series of visits from Xander Berkeley as a strange priest) and more an example of unsatisfying scripting.
Bertino instead opts to ratchet up the gory gags, which run the gamut between very effective (again, that vegetable chopping) and oddly out of place (a vision of Louise that appears to a supporting character). The filmmaker also makes fine use of its farm setting, and anyone who can’t shake a sense of worry about all those adorable goats, well, they’re going to be proven right sooner or later. Bertino’s ability to frame a shot remains stellar, however, and even when what’s actually happening onscreen isn’t that thrilling, the filmmaker and cinematographer Tristan Nyby sure know how to lens it like it is.
Ireland remains impressive throughout, and her ability to deliver maximum emotion (usually abject terror) without falling into hammy gimmicks elevates the film, even when it’s teetering into its own gimmickry. She’s the kind of scream queen we need these days — emotive, real, deeply human — even if “The Dark and the Wicked” doesn’t always rise up to meet her powers.
“The Dark and the Wicked” premiered at the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival. RLJE Films will release it in selects theaters on Friday, November 6, and Shudder will start streaming it in 2021.
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