“Because you were home” is still a chilling phrase twelve years later. Bryan Bertino burst onto the horror scene with The Strangers, a divisive film but one exploring a real fear: home invasion. Bertino’s latest horror film as writer and director, The Dark and the Wicked, is also about a home invasion. While the intruders aren’t killers wearings marks, a family on a secluded farm is still plagued by someone or something hell-bent on killing them. But unlike the protagonists in The Strangers, this family, no matter how hard they try, cannot hide or defend themselves because what has invaded their home is something they can’t see. It’s not only evil in human form that preys at night.
The image of an idyllic farm opens The Dark and the Wicked. While during the day we can imagine it would certainly feel welcoming, at night, as the windmill spins and the sound of sheep fill the air, there’s a creep factor to it, validated by howling wolves in the distance that suddenly drowns out everything else. A cue – a warning – used throughout the film to signal that something dark and wicked this way comes. Wolves are a threat to livestock, but they’re not the threat that’s caused the couple on this farm to live in constant fear. There’s a scene right at the beginning where, following the wolves’ howl, the sheep start to panic. Amongst the scuffle, there’s a very quick blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of a man crouched among them. Bald, his skin cold. Lifeless. The film’s atmosphere is established quickly in a chilling way, and soon, other mysterious occurrences begin: chairs moving, doors opening, lights turning on and off, and a dark figured passed unnoticed. It has the perfect ghost story vibe and it only gets more hair-raising.
The film carries a heaviness in its narrative that has nothing to do with the entity that’s made this farm it’s home. At the heart of the film is something we’re all going to experience or have already: the death of our parents. As a father (Michael Zagst) lays on his death bed with a mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) at his side, their two estranged children Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) come home to be with their parents. Together, each performer aids in created an environment of grief and sullenness. The burden of grieving a loved one while they’re still alive is felt, and the fear of having that be a reality in our own lives creeps in. Their mother (both the mother and father characters are unnamed) doesn’t seem welcoming to their presence. She keeps telling them that they shouldn’t have come and is adamant that they should go – advice the pair should have heeded. Louise and Michael soon become aware that something in the home isn’t right; something is causing their father’s sickness. A dark influence is felt and introduced to them and the audience with unsettling body horror and shocking tragedy. Something is coming for their father’s soul, and it’s not just the Grim Reaper. As the siblings try to figure out what’s going on, what’s causing the images they begin to see, the fear they begin to feel, and what’s affecting this farmstead, the question becomes whether this time of grief will bring them closer together or tear them apart.
Bertino has crafted a film that’s horrifying from beginning to end. Just like in The Strangers, the score adds the perfect intensity to the most frightening scenes. The gloominess of the cinematography with its many cool shots and excellent complimentary use of shadow and lighting, combined with its sound design all result in making our hair stand on end. The film has some jump scares, but they’re not cheap and not the primary technique used for fear factor. Bertino relies more on imagery that manifests in ways that are personal to the protagonists and affectingly plays on fears we have ourselves, especially the fear of dying alone.
If it weren’t for some questionable CGI in one scene, The Dark and the Wicked would be a perfect film. However, there’s no doubt that it’s the most terrifying tale of the supernatural subgenre told in a long time and one of the best horror films of the year alongside Relic – also a horror film with a focus on the elderly and grief. It’s incredibly distressing how the devil Bertino creates plays his tricks when it comes to preying on the vulnerabilities of the elderly. We think about what will happen to us when we’re old, especially those of us who don’t want children. Who will take care of us? Where will we end up? That kind of isolation and unknown is scary. And as the producers discuss in the film’s press notes, it “can often leave pathways open for darkness.”