Writer-director Bryan Bertino commits to a specific tone in The Dark and the Wicked, a downbeat horror-thriller about a dying patriarch whose imminent mortality sets upon the surviving members of his family like a curse. There is something abstract here, in that the threat is rarely literal and mostly symbolic, and indeed, that makes the experience of watching the movie both admirable, because the horrors are often unspoken, and frustrating, because there isn’t ultimately something substantive onto which to latch. Bertino offers the usual horror beats here, including strange figures in the backgrounds of shot set-ups and disturbed inanimate objects and sounds coming from suspicious places. The difference is simply one of tone.

There is a sorrowful quality to the story, which partly follows an elderly couple entering the final stages of their life together. The father (Michael Zagst) is slowly wasting away from what appears to be general old age. The mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) walks around as if in a trance, at one point cutting off two of her own fingers with a kitchen knife in a state of complete dissociation. Something is genuinely off about these people, their experiences and their shared lives on this small farm in a rural backwater, but we can’t quite place it until the film’s other characters come into frame. This is an exceptional introduction to the tone Bertino is going for, allowing the audience to lean in and pay attention to every corner of the frame. An introduction only goes so far, though, and the payoff never quite arrives.

Eventually, the couple’s two children arrive. Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) have been estranged from other – and from their parents and extended family – for so long that Louise is seemingly unaware that her brother has had two kids. The last Michael heard of his sister was when she was working at a post office many, many jobs ago. Ireland and Abbott are both strong here, suggesting a whole lot of love before the loss of it and the fracturing of their family, and Bertino does a lot in the early scenes between the two. Once the movie’s concerns move toward the expected horror tropes, including the priest (Xander Berkeley) who arrives to offer something akin to an explanation for all the weird stuff going on, its grip on itself loosens perceptibly.

For one, the apparent rules of the powers at work within this house are randomly illogical, changing at the drop of a hat for the benefit of the screenplay, precisely so that Bertino can continue his mood-spinning exercise. The film finally favors the spin above all else, never quite giving an explanation for the threat (supernatural or paranormal or otherwise) that is at work but also leaving no room for doubt about what’s really going on. That imbalance once again places the film on a knife’s edge between quite admirable and more than a bit frustrating. The exercise of The Dark and the Wicked is on point; Bertino and cinematographer Tristan Nyby shroud everything in a gloomy atmosphere, which fits, and some scare tactics, such as that bit with a knife, are quite effective. But it’s not enough.

The gloomy atmosphere is on point, but not enough.
60 %
Vague Atmosphere
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