The Dark and the Wicked (2020)

On a desolate goat farm out in rural Thurber, Texas, the Straker family’s elderly patriarch David (Michael Zagst) lies in bed, ill and dying. Yet it is not just death that stalks this property in Bryan Bertino’s The Dark and the Wicked. For something is spooking the goats in their barn at night, and between her chores, her dressmaking and her cooking, David’s wife Virginia (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) too senses a presence in the house. 

“I told you all not to come,” Virginia says to her adult daughter Louise (Marin Ireland). Louise has arrived for her father’s end, along with her brother Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) who has a family and home of his own a long drive away. There is also old neighbour Charlie (Tom Nowicki) who helps out running the farm, and a Christian nurse/carer (Lynn Andrews) who sits with the comatose David. “She’ll talk if she wants to talk,” Michael says of their mother – but the Strakers are all taciturn, undemonstrative folk, and Virginia’s first words are as close as she will get to articulating in speech a warning to her children of what is wrong in the deep shadows of this creaky old farmhouse.

“Y’all should go,” Viriginia tells Michael later that evening, “It’s not what you think” – but then she meets his request for further clarification with stony silence. Not long afterwards, following a truly shocking disruption of the domestic quiet, Virginia will no longer be able to tell them anything, leaving her children to pick up the pieces and to work out what to do about their father as he still clings to life.

The Dark and the Wicked falls into a recent run of films – like Jordan Graham’s Sator (2019), Xia Magnus’ Sanzaru (2020) and Natalie Erika James’ Relic (2020) – that use horror to dramatise the grief and guilt experienced by a younger generation towards their senescent, moribund parents. As Louise tries to come to grips with what has happened, Michael tells her, “It ain’t going to make sense, ever” – and that might as well serve as the manifesto for a film whose demonic presence slips ambiguously into the grey area between a literal evil and a psychological metaphor for sorrow, trauma and despair. We can see that the Strakers, isolated, alienated and lacking the comfort of faith, are coming apart at the seams in their mourning and uncertainty about the future – but at the same time, the ill-intentioned, shape-shifting Other that they encounter, though certainly at first hallucinatory in nature, become increasingly impossible to dismiss as mere fancy. A surprise visit from a Priest (Xander Berkeley) serves only to muddy these waters further, as he insists that the wolf circling them is “not out there, he’s already here.”

The Dark and the Wicked is bleak from the very outset, but as its events become ever more irrational and extend beyond the precinct of the farm, an oppressive sense of doom pervades these atmospheric, lived-in sets, as all hope evaporates, and whatever is haunting the Strakers proves unwilling to let anybody escape its baleful influence. Everything here comes impossibly overdetermined. There are hints of a harrowing past for Louise that simply cannot be reconciled with the present. It becomes harder and harder to discern what is real and what is unreal, who is living and who is dead – and there is even a suggestion, if nothing more, that everyone here might be dead and that this is hell. Meanwhile, the sight, in the background of several scenes, of a tattered Stars and Stripes suggests an allegory of a fallen America, facing an apocalypse of its own lovelessness and loneliness – where even religious belief, traditionally a bulwark against the devil’s encroachments, can offer no salvation. 

Like writer/director Bertino’s feature debut The Strangers (2008), this is essentially a home invasion film – except that the intruder comes from within (“it’s already here”), as an insidious combination of misery, anguish and deep moral terror. In keeping with the title, here wickedness triumphs, no light remains to which the viewer can cling, and meaning itself is left in the shadows. The results are all at once grim, creepy and filled with existential dread.

Summary: Bryan Bertino’s bleak chiller locates in an alienated family’s crisis a broader moral and spiritual apocalypse.

© Anton Bitel