Credit: Traveling Picture Show Company (TPSC), Unbroken Pictures, Shotgun Shack Pictures
It’s hard to pin one definition to “darkness.” Any one interpretation seems inadequate, and that is certainly true as it’s represented in writer-director Bryan Bertino’s ‘The Dark and the Wicked.’ He suggests that darkness is ever-present and inescapable. It’s the inevitability of death, it’s promises broken, it’s the pall of grief, it’s the coyotes howling in the night. And it’s coming to get you.
No, you won’t find hope in ‘The Dark and the Wicked,’ even in its once promising and still picturesque farmlands of Texas. Our story takes place somewheres about Thurber, Texas. A quick online search reveals that Thurber was once a booming and diverse community, whose population has since dwindled down to less than 50.
This rural ghosttown, sucked dry of its liveliness with its “brightest days” behind it, serves as the backdrop to this tale. There, we find a man on his deathbed. His wife tends to his bedside as she gradually gets swallowed up by his grief. The couple’s two children, Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) return to the family’s farm to mourn their father, but their mother’s sudden suicide leaves the siblings wading through waking nightmares. Evil — or at least some intangible darkness — is overtaking the family.
There is no real reason for the demented goings-on at the farm, which is the more frightening alternative to fancy plot devices. Thus, the film builds fear without indulging in complicated demonic vendettas or cult sacrifices. It’s the unseen and intangible nature of evil that imbues the film with its sense of terror.
Lots of ‘The Dark and the Wicked’’s scaring success is rooted in location and its accompanying soundscape. Sound designer Joe Stockton crafts a world that recalls Wayne Bell’s disturbing sonic textures in ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.’ Stockton embraces the perceived tranquility of a quiet Texas farm, and transforms it into a series of omens. Any sound — sheep baaing, chimes jingling, wind whistling, cows mooing, and of course the banal chopping of carrots — could mean danger.
This is a place to entertain ghost stories, if there ever was one. Michael at first refuses to do so. Louise is the first to experience the “darkness,” and looks to her mother’s chilling diary entries for clues. The mother’s entries speak of a “Devil” coming for her husband, saying “He is everywhere.” The “He” appears in many forms: as the dying father wandering around the house, a chair shifting positions in the kitchen, the mother beckoning her son days after her death. The “He” doesn’t seem to be a person or creature — it’s more of a looming feeling. It’s everywhere and sometimes too much to bear, convincing several characters that death is the only escape. “Dark” and “Wicked” indeed.
It’s a strong choice on behalf of writer-director Bryan Bertino make a horror film surrounding a family’s grief, only to plunge relentlessly deeper into hopelessness. Louise, played with a pitch perfect soil-grown wornness by Marin Ireland, is positioned as our main protagonist, but not a hero. She’s not an almighty defeater of darkness, and Bertino cynically asserts that no one is.
A nurse (Lynn Andrews) who helps to care for the siblings’ ill father offers the clearest thesis to ‘The Dark and the Wicked.’ She observes the religion-resistant Louise and Michael as they grieve, and provides some guidance. She’s a woman of faith, and believes that there are “horrible, wicked things,” and they “come for whoever they want.” She then adds, “But there’s love here. And the soul needs love to keep it safe.” The line feels a bit shoehorned, as if our writer suddenly remembered that darkness only exists alongside the light. Up until this point, we hadn’t even seen this family’s relationship outside of its grayed-out grief.
This love the nurse feels in the home, combined with her prayers for the family, aren’t foolproof protection. The dark still finds them — including the nurse. Apparently, even the strongest faith can’t save us from despair and certain doom.
‘The Dark and the Wicked’ isn’t for the eternal optimist. It’s a feel-bad film that pits you into a faded, isolated, and forgotten patch of earth, and says we are and always will be nothing more than the dust from which we came.
‘The Dark and the Wicked,’ written and directed by Bryan Bertino (The Strangers), is available to stream on Shudder this week.