Review: The Dark and the Wicked (Bertino, 2020)

Starring: Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr., and Julie Oliver-Touchstone

Rating: C-

Being on the cusp of greatness, having all the tools to succeed and coming short, is painfully frustrating. Especially in consideration of a genre movie, where right out of the gate you’re going to be under the scrutiny of comparisons to your peers. Horror is really hard to nail down, for every Ari Aster original you get a handful of unwatchable duds. Fans of the genre obviously don’t want this, but it’s something they have to endure to finally get to the good stuff. Rarely do you see a movie have everything it needs to break into that tier of fan-acknowledged canon, yet drop the ball when it counts the most.

Call The Dark and the Wicked an outlier, then — A movie that has every opportunity to be great and turns the offer down on several occasions. When siblings Louise (Ireland) and Michael Straker (Abbott Jr.) return to their Texas family farm to see their father on his deathbed, things somehow take a turn for the worse. Their mother Virginia (Oliver-Touchstone), who has been single-handedly keeping the farm afloat, is emotionally and socially checked out, and to make things worse, evidence of an other-worldly presence begins to make itself known. For the Strakers, their family bond is put to the test through a gauntlet of evil escapades. 

So many of the scares that pepper the film are, to an extent, genuinely creepy. Everything from spooky unexpected visitors to gore-hound gristle surpass many sub-genres to make it a unique experience. However, they come at the expense of being shallow and contrived for the sake of terror. The worst aspect of this is the general set-up of the narrative offers a lot more in terms of making these scares more meaningful. 

Much of the fear in the film is derived from the themes it so rarely wants to actually explore. It’s easy to see how the scares connect to grief, fear of familial loss, and abandonment, but the movie treats these topics as though they’re dissected by simply being present. Not every horror film needs to take itself seriously or even attempt to go beyond the merits of itself, but it’s evident The Dark and the Wicked is trying for greater things. 

Everything about the tone and atmosphere suggests it’s trying to be a film, something to be evaluated on an intellectual level, but it doesn’t trust itself enough to go beyond the immediate. Too many times does it settle for the bare minimum, which is a shame because the subject matter is ripe for the picking. Consequently, The Dark and the Wicked lands somewhere between your everyday schlock and art-house horror: too vapid for the cerebral, and too slow for the thrill-seeker. 

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