If you were besieged by the forces of evil, and all that kept you there was the rotting corpse of a memory of a relationship, how long would you stick around?
That's the merciless question at the core of The Dark and the Wicked, a chilling and nightmarish story of occult occurrances in backcountry Texas. Louise (Ireland, Hell or High Water, The Umbrella Academy) and her brother Michael (Abbott Jr., The Death of Dick Long) quit the farm they grew up on years ago, leaving behind their mother and their ailing father. It was no family rift, just what happens when kids grow up, and now the world turns again and they're home as he draws nearer to his final breath. But their mother seems to ... not resent their presence, but regret it, as if distance could save them from whatever family curse whispers outside the door, and casts shadows where there is no light.
In this High Plains Hereditary, Texas director Bryan Bertino injects pockets of grisly sin and flesh-rending into a film that creates its greatest horrors through a pulsating sense of quiet doom. After the slim but effective chills of The Monster, he executes a supernatural rural horror every bit as disturbing and impactful as his meteoric debut, 2008's The Strangers.
What his first and latest films truly share is ambiguity. His home invasion classic stood out from the pack because you were never quite sure why the killers picked that house, on that night. Here, the evil is equally implacable but even more inscrutable. All the adult children have to grasp at are ever less explicable phenomena, both earthly and impossible. Over everything is the increasing sense of dread, subtly amplified by the constant, arrhythmic drumming of rain on the roof, like clawed fingers rapping on sheet metal.
The Dark and the Wicked pulls no punches, either in its sense of perpetual unease, its occasional moments of understated yet truly stomach-churning gore, or in its emotional heft. In Louise and Michael, the push and pull of filial obligation is writ large and somber, most especially on their faces as they realize that whatever legacy they are inheriting is more sinister than just some soil and a herd of sheep. Their fate, and how heartrendingly and horrifyingly Bertino depicts it, is what will let the audience be dragged to Hell with them.
The Dark and the Wicked is available on Blu-ray and DVD now, and streaming via Shudder.
A version of this review ran as part of our Fantasia 2020 coverage.
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