Fantasia Review – The Dark and the Wicked

Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbot Jr) are siblings who have returned to their family farm to deal with the imminent death of their father. Their mother is curiously withdrawn and didn’t want them to come. (“She told us not to come” becomes an agonising refrain) When a tragedy occurs Louise and Michael realise that something truly terrible is living at their farm. And it wants their father…

Oh, my friends, this one has haunted me. I first watched it late at night and confess the opening moments didn’t entirely grab me. It was a little slow, the accents a little heavy for me to understand at that time of night. Then the first terrible thing happened and from that moment The Dark and the Wicked grabbed me and it has not let me go. 

Writer/director Bryan Bertino burst onto the horror scene with his discomforting home invasion tale The Strangers and he has surpassed himself with The Dark and the Wicked which is easily the scariest and most distressing horror film I’ve seen in years. This movie is just utterly merciless. It’s completely relentless, it unleashes a cavalcade of horrors on poor Louise and Michael and it never ever lets up. There is no chance to catch your breath. The most mundane situation turns terrifying at the drop of a dime. This is most definitely not a movie you’re going to want to watch if you’re feeling a bit fragile.

I watch a lot of horror movies and it never ceases to surprise me how little of what I watch is actually frightening. So many films rely on gore and jump scares but The Dark and the Wicked is truly unsettling. It just burrows its way under your skin until you’re so tense it becomes almost unbearable to watch. The devil features in many a genre pic but it’s very rare that the concept is used effectively. Demonic possession as a plot device has become so overused it has ceased to be effective. The Dark and the Wicked reclaims all that and makes the devil (or whatever hell thing is in that house) absolutely terrifying. The atmosphere of malevolence is overwhelming. We don’t know why it wants their father. Is it because he is loved? Is it because his wife noticed the presence in the house? Or is it doing all this simply because it can? 

You will spend a lot of your time screaming (and I do mean screaming) at the movie “just dump the old git in a nursing home and get the hell away from there” but Bertino is way, way ahead of you. There is a streak of profound cruelty in this movie. Rarely has evil seemed so, well, evil.

Marin Ireland and Michael Abbot Jr are both superb as the siblings trying to come to terms with the horrors on the farm all the while trying desperately to protect their father. Ireland was hugely impressive in the recent series of The Umbrella Academy and she is equally wonderful here. It is hard to portray goodness on screen without it coming across as trite but Ireland shows us that Louise is a good woman who is truly trying her best while hell reigns down on her. Wracked by grief and still clinging to the illusory safety that being in her childhood home brings she is the closest this movie has to a superhero. Xander Berkeley (character actor extraordinaire) shows up in a deeply unsettling cameo as the family priest.  He’s only on screen for 5 minutes but his presence casts a long shadow.

I loved that there is some fascinating ambiguity in some of the scenes. My friend and I interpreted the Xander Berkley cameo quite differently to each other and a later emotional phonecall that Louise makes is ripe for interpretation. You could write an essay on the implications of the nurse’s (a wonderful Lynn Andrews) anguished entreaty to Louise “Why can’t you just see?”

The gore is mostly limited so that when it does feature it is all the more impactful. A later sequence featuring knitting needles left me stunned.

The soundscape of the film is extraordinary – layers of voices and chimes and animal noises combining to create a discordant sound that scrapes at your nerves – like the buzzing of a million flies or the sound of a thousand voices screaming to be heard. It’s an auditory hellscape that leaves you longing for silence.

The Dark and the Wicked is a truly scary, relentlessly bleak movie that is the best horror released so far in 2020. Of the 12 features I saw at Fantasia it is easily the best of fest.

5/5 stars

The Dark and the Wicked releases in select US cinemas in November and will be coming to Shudder in 2021