Some horror directors favour the balls-out approach of a high concept, others go down the skill route. Call it art v craft or wit v cunning. Then you get directors who manage both – Sam Raimi went down the the first path with Evil Dead and down the second with Drag Me to Hell.
The Dark and the Wicked is writer/director Bryan Bertino’s fourth horror movie after The Strangers, Mockingbird and The Monsters. And if none of the others set people alight, they did at least give Bertino the space to make some mistakes and learn how to make a horror movie properly.
That all comes good here, with a film that’s not only extremely well crafted but also understands that beneath all good horror flicks lurks a fear an audience has to relate to, or it won’t work, no matter how much gore and screaming there is.
Before anything as concrete as a plot has announced itself, Bertino’s craft is evident in an early shot – a woman in a remote farmhouse is chopping vegetables for dinner. She hears an ominous noise behind her. She doesn’t tighten her grip on the knife but lets go of it entirely, before turning confrontationally.
This action seems ominously counter-intuitive and it sets up a tension that takes us through the mundane scene-setting that follows – the woman (Julie-Oliver Touchstone) is a wife and her husband is dying in the back room. The grown-up kids Julie (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbot Jr) are back at the family sheep farm to say their farewells and support their distraught mother.
Bertino takes a pause for breath before starting on the first of a number of splattery incidents. Particularly nasty the first one. That chopping knife is involved.
With a title like The Dark and the Wicked, it’s not going to come as much of a shock to discover that supernatural forces are at large on this family farm, and not just supernatural but demonic, possibly the Devil himself. Reinforced when Dad, generally insensate and hooked up to oxygen, appears in the bathroom all a-gibber, black around the eyes and pissing down his leg while his daughter is trying to take a shower.
It was around here – blameless person confined to bed, demonic possession – that a thought bubble appeared above my head with the words “The Exorcist” in it.
And then a snowy-haired priest complete with dog collar arrived.
From here things move at increasing speed, the murky lighting of Tristan Nyby complementing the sound design of Joe Stockton, which carefully balances ambient atmospherics with Tom Schraeder’s musical soundtrack, while the increasingly impressive Marin Ireland, as the increasingly distraught Julie, takes on the burden of the film.
Horror films often feature death but they’re not often about death. The Dark and the Wicked unusually is, and beneath the demonic possession, the gore, the self-injury and the mutilation of animals is a focus on one man’s last days on earth. Actor Michael Zagst, as the dying dad, doesn’t get an awful lot to do but the film is about his character and his impending demise – Zagst’s death scene is, essentially, the whole film.
If the horror of The Exorcist had something to do with the burgeoning sexuality of a young girl, here we’re at the other end of the cycle, at another event most of us don’t want to focus on too closely, if at all.
Dad does die in this film, but it’s not a demon that kills him, it’s mortality, and as heartfelt a death it would be hard to find in another film of this sort.
This obviously won’t do for for horror hounds and so, for the less sensitive among us, Bertino goes for a balls-out ending as well, of gore, gore and more gore. Sam Raimi would be proud.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020