Producers: Bryan Bertino, Adrienne Biddle, Sonny Mallhi and Kevin Matusow Director: Bryan Bertino Screenplay: Bryan Bertino Cast: Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr., Julie Oliver-Touchstone, Lynn Andrews, Tom Nowicki, Xander Berkeley, Michael Zagst, Jonathan Trott, Ella Ballentine, Mel Cowan, Mindy Raymond and Chris Doubek Distributor: RLJE Films
A sense of dread permeates Bryan Bertino’s small-scaled, slow-burning supernatural thriller, which never provides an explicit explanation of what’s going on, preferring to revel in being enigmatic. Using sudden scare tactics rather than flamboyant splatter effects to punctuate a gloomily creepy atmosphere, “The Dark and the Wicked” nonetheless keeps one unnerved up to its abrupt—perhaps overly abrupt—conclusion.
Set on a remote goat ranch outside Thurber, Texas (but actually shot at the writer-director’s family property in Tolar, near Granbury), the plot brings siblings Louise and Michael Straker (Marin Ireland and Michael Abbot Jr.) back to their childhood home to say goodbye to their dying father David (Michael Zagst) even though their mother Virginia (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) has told them not to come. David is bedridden and barely breathing, and Virginia is distraught, doing little but mechanically chopping carrots on the kitchen counter. The only other person who comes regularly is a day nurse (Lynn Andrews), though Charlie (Xander Berkeley), a neighbor, is occasional at hand.
The plot unfolds over the course of a week, with title cards announcing the days from Monday to Sunday. It doesn’t take long for tragedy to strike, with Virginia’s depression taking a destructive turn that leaves Louise and Michael, with periodic help from the nurse, to care for David. But oddities soon arise—strange noises in the house, telephone calls without anyone at the other end, flickers of shadows. They escalate into what must be hallucinations—Michael thinks he sees Virginia out in the yard, and Louise is terrified when David appears to leave his bed. But other occurrences are all too real—like the slaughter of their goats.
There’s also a visit from a grizzled priest (Tom Nowicki), who claims to have visited Virginia and David in the past, although the couple was never terribly religious, and to have given Virginia the little crucifixes that she was carrying with her. He shows up at unexpected times, and disappears just as suddenly. And when Louisa tries to phone him, he claims to be nowhere in the vicinity. Another visitor, a young girl who claims to be Charlie’s granddaughter (Ella Ballentine), will be equally frightening. The only explanation comes in the form of an enigmatic utterance by the nurse about evil forces that can simply come uninvited and do what they wish—which in the case of several characters, including her, involves compelling them to commit unspeakable acts.
In the end Louisa has to face the horror of what is happening on her own.
“The Dark and the Wicked” really has the slimmest of plots, but Bertino invests it with a grimly fatalistic feel and a succession of simple but scary moments. It’s essentially an exercise in style—the frights are actually pretty random, and never coalesce into a discernible pattern. But each on its own will make you jump and your skin crawl, which in this day of gory, mindless horror films is a considerable accomplishment.
His accomplishment is certainly bolstered by the crafts team, who help him create a mood of menace on an obviously threadbare budget. In production designer Scott Colquitt’s hands the house and its immediate surroundings have a disturbing look, and cinematographer Tristan Nyby employs light and shadow to unsettling effect, the images often taking on a hallucinatory quality; the occasion optical tricks are well managed too, and the editing by William Boodell and Zachary Weintraub deftly interjects the shock moments into a generally funereal framework. Tom Schraeder’s brooding score is another telling ingredient.
Ireland is the linchpin of the cast, convincingly sliding from nervousness into abject terror by the close. Abbott’s role hasn’t the same emotional variety, but he’s persuasive as well, while Oliver-Touchstone creates a keen portrait of despair and Andrews caps her generally placid performance with a powerful finish. Nowicki, meanwhile, exudes a calmly sinister air as the interloping clergyman.
The result may be little more than an exercise in genre manipulation, but it’s an expert one, depending on ghostly chills rather than the blood-splattered grossness so prevalent in horror movies nowadays.