Horror critic and screenwriter Jerry Sampson examines Bryan Bertino’s 2020 shocker, and the layers of family lies, secrets and trauma within…
The thing about fear is that it can elude you if you indulge too often. You begin to forget how heavily that pit sits in your stomach, the faint taste of iron in your mouth, the stretching of the eardrum as it strains to hear sounds that don’t belong in the dark. My job is watching horror, my passion is writing horror, and like it or not, my tolerance level is at an all time high. You might say, I’m thoroughly desensitized. For this reason, when a movie comes along that has me clutching my blanket and covering my mouth, it’s a big deal – to me at least.
Bryan Bertino’s The Dark and the Wicked was released mid-pandemic, amidst the chaos of division, when families were either isolated apart or forced together. Tensions were rising, sides were being chosen, and a world-wide health crisis was the catalyst for an epidemic of loneliness and the sneaking spread of uncertainty that we’re all still contending with. While some may have wanted to avoid darker fare during this time, I found continued solace in it. Many horror fans find the genre comforting, and contrary to what the general public may feel about the darkness portrayed within horror films, devotees of the genre tend to be realistic about the harsh nature of reality and more capable of facing doom and gloom.
My first watch of The Dark and the Wicked was greatly impacting. I had been fighting with my family and had to outright tell them I would not be seeing them until after the madness of the pandemic passed. I told them I would not come, and they didn’t understand. As the movie began to set its stage, I was struck with the parallels between the story and my own life, as main characters Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) visit their dad on his deathbed after their mother adamantly insisted that they should not have come. Confusion and misinformation dominated the conversation within the movie, not unlike my conversation with my family. And as the narrative unfolded, I saw more connections between my complicated relationships and those within the film.
Right away, the claustrophobic nature of the small house the four find themselves in feels suffocating. It doesn’t help that the family appear to be already divided, and though the movie doesn’t outwardly address the dynamics, it seems like there have been unresolved issues simmering for years. This concept struck a chord with me, as much of my writing concentrates on family issues and the insidious rot of trauma as it is passed down from generation to generation. As the patriarch lay dying, Louise and Michael side-step talking about their feelings, both stoic, neither wishing to betray their emotions. It isn’t until their mother’s horrific suicide that their walls begin to break down.
About that suicide, Bertino proves to be a master at building tension through aberrant camera angles, forcing the audience to look too long at a dark corner where surely that shadow is an ominous figure. As Mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) stands at the cutting board, chopping carrots, being fed whispers from an unseen force, we know what is coming as the knife inches dangerously close to her fingertips because we’ve been programmed to expect the worst in this situation. But somehow, it is so much worse for Mother, because it isn’t enough that she nips the tip, she is forced to continue bringing the knife down, chopping through bone, not stopping even as the pain overtakes her, mincing the pieces of her limbs until they are a bloodied mound.
A distinguishing factor of The Dark and the Wicked is the choice made to focus intently on imagery that other films might turn away from, and focus on the cold, harsh reality of what the characters are experiencing. It isn’t just Mother who suffers at the hands of the evil that plagues the family. It’s everyone who comes into contact with them, as the Entity that curses one continues to curse all, be it a friendly farm hand or pious hospice nurse. The darkness that has its hold on the family is cruel and has a wicked sense of humour, mean spirited in its torture while it breaks down Louise and Michael, doing everything it can to separate them and coerce them to abandon their father. The subject of religion enters with the presence of a Priest (Xander Berkeley) who claims to have been helping Mother through her hard times. The siblings insist that their Mother didn’t adhere to religious beliefs, but as we all know, one needn’t believe in the devil to know that evil exists.
I grew up in a religious home, it’s part of what causes the turmoil in my family to this day, the idea that religion gives one the right to reign down moral judgement on others because of their chosen faith pattern. I remember feeling darkness within my family, the kind of darkness that comes from hidden secrets and shameful lies, and I could never understand how anyone could grow up shrouded in such darkness and still maintain their blind faith. I never attributed the good things to God and the bad things to the Devil, because it all felt like make-believe. And as I began to explore horror in both literary and cinematic formats, I grew accustomed to assigning bad actions to the badness in people, not to unseen forces.
It isn’t easier to think that way: in fact, I often think about how comforting it would be to have the ability to tuck away my common sense and believe that the Devil lurks in those shadows that torment my family. But even as I watch a movie like The Dark and the Wicked, with its inherent supernatural bend, I can’t help but see the demon that has attached itself to Father as an allegory for a dark family secret that has been kept far too long, festering beneath quiet family dinners and long-repressed memories. I don’t know what the secret is in Louise and Michael’s family, but I know the destruction secrets cause, how they can attach themselves to the very soul of a family, feeding off fights and denial and the never-ending re-hash of blame and regret.
As bleak as The Dark and the Wicked ultimately is, there are moments of light that attempt to shine through, offering a promise – however fleeting – of healing and survival. At one point, after Louise tells Michael about a truly terrifying experience she had at the hands of the Entity, Michael tells her that he, too, has seen something. This is a significant moment, especially in the horror genre, as so often people experience things alone, with those on the outside refusing to believe or acknowledge that what they felt was real. When Michael tells her what he saw, the siblings are no longer living separate nightmares, and his admittance to being scared opens the door for them to fight their battle together. This moment erases the doubt that led them both to question the reality of their felt state, and while most movies force their characters to fight darkness alone, this moment opens Michael and Louise to bond, working together for as long as they possibly can to understand what is happening.
Fear can be a lonely state to live in. It can divide, isolate. But once the reality of fear is shared, once that tiny sliver of light cuts the darkness, no matter the outcome, even the smallest bit of relief is overwhelmingly comforting. The family in The Dark and the Wicked experience every form of terror imaginable, the Entity never really letting go, and it is this absolutely nihilistic absence of light at the end of the tunnel that makes the film so horrific. It’s the concept that love doesn’t conquer all, that we really, truly die alone, that permeates the narrative and leaves the viewer feeling cold inside. But through all that, Michael and Louise have that one moment, one shared deep breath, where they weren’t facing their nightmare in isolation.
The Dark and the Wicked is heart-breaking, chilling, hits too close to home, and for that, I love it. I love it because it reawakened fear in me, made me think about things I didn’t want to, and made me shine a light on some of the darkness inside me that had been laying dormant. That’s the beauty of great horror, and The Dark and the Wicked is really, really great horror.