The devil is in the details in “The Dark and the Wicked,” a horror film that teases out the evil presence descending on a grieving family on a Texas farm, with the same ambiguous, psychological heft of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.” Writer-director Bryan Bertino’s slender script translates into a low-humming, allusvie narrative (punctuated with occasional gore) of tingling terror. His evocation of a familiar, domestic world mysteriously sliding into chaos feels all the more blood-curdling because the protagonists’ distress and helplessness are emotionally relatable.
Following its selection by the Tribeca, Fantasia and Sitges festivals, the film will be released theatrically stateside in November, and stream on Shudder in the U.K. and other select territories. Bertino can count on the enthusiasm of a niche but loyal genre fanbase for whom he built a reputation with three distinctively styled horror-thrillers — “The Strangers,” “Mockingbird” and “The Monster” — which also enjoyed a degree of critical recognition.
At a remote farm in Thurber, Texas, the end is near for its owner David Straker (Michael Zagst), who has been on life support for years. His children Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) have returned home to bid farewell. However, their company is no consolation to their mother Virginia (Julie Oliver-Touchstone), whose neurosis manifests itself while chopping carrots in the kitchen. Suffice to say, nothing edible gets served before tragedy comes a-knocking.
The siblings discover a bag of small crucifixes that their mother collected and a diary scrawled full of fearful premonition, especially of danger to David’s soul. His parttime nurse (Lynn Andrews) says she noticed Mrs. Straker talking as if a third person was around. A priest (Xander Berkeley) visits, telling them the family’s rejection of Christian faith has left the door wide open for diabolical forces to enter.
The narrative spans one week, but a lucid sense of time eventually collapses in the protagonists’ and viewers’ minds. Atmosphere is most unnerving when small things in their mundane lives go slightly out of whack, such as people or objects appearing in the wrong places, an inexplicable phone call, a door creaking open, windchimes (that look like occult talismans) murmuring or goats bleating restlessly in the night.
As with “The Strangers,” Bertino has a knack for evoking suspense and menace just by having people stand at the doorway. And when the nurse says, “There are these horrible things — wicked. And they can come for who they want,” she invokes the same random evil that motivates the masked intruders of “The Strangers,” whose reason for assaulting a couple was “because you were home.”
That this evil is intangible renders it more omnipresent, especially when each scene delivers a sign that it’s inching closer by the day. The creepiest of which is when characters behaving normally stop mid-conversation to make utterances that sound like direct-messaging from Satan. However, after meticulous thought has gone into cultivating a foreboding mood, the ending is jarringly abrupt, as if it’s found footage that got cut off.
When it comes to the complex feelings of adults coping with aging parents, Louise and Michael’s sorrow is compounded by the guilt of having left their folks to such a lonely existence. The isolation, physical as well as emotional, is enough to drive them over the edge, and the script treads an ambivalent line, suggesting that any supernatural phenomena they encounter could be mere figments of imagination.
Unlike classic horrors centered on a family, the story arc is not based on the uncovering of ancestral grudges and murderous offenses. There is no particular animosity between the Strakers, and they clearly care for each other, if only they didn’t live so far apart. It is their very “normality” that connects the characters to audiences, making what befalls them feel especially cruel. Ireland conveys subtle differences between paranoia and white-knuckled fear with an appealing fragility, while Oliver-Touchstone invites sympathy and disquiet with just a few twitches of her wrinkles. However, the glaring absence of any background to the main characters’ lives and relationships gives the cast less to work with than they deserve.
Shooting took place at Bertino’s family farm in the town of Tolar, on the outskirts of Granbury, Texas. The director’s familiarity with the surroundings no doubt guided DP Tristan Nyby in finding cinematic angles. Aerial and other traveling shots of the farmland capture both its pastoral beauty, as well as its unearthly vastness. Like “Midsommar,” the crisp lensing of sun-drenched outdoors dotted with herds of sprightly goats conjures its own kind of spookiness.
Bucking conventions of sepulchral Gothic mansions, Scott Colquitt’s production design emphasizes Straker home’s ordinary domesticity and rustic comfort, even as the prowling camera lingers too tellingly on a large animal skull hanging in the dining room, which could be handy for a gathering in honor of Azazel. Tom Schraeder’s low-key mournful score has just the right dose of uncanny, but his finest work is the closing theme song “Darkness Stalls” — an evocative country folksong with a Gothic streak which he composed and sung himself.