The grim spectre of death hangs over a rural Texas farm in The Dark and the Wicked, an intense and unsettling new horror film from the director of The Strangers now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Despite the advance warnings of mom, Julie (Marin Ireland, especially effective) and brother Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) return to the setting of their family’s rustic goat farm after their father enters a coma and draws closer and closer to death. Soon, they discover that beyond the imminent death of dad, things really aren’t right.
Death, it seems, isn’t content to wait around and let dad die. Instead, it wants to terrorize the two siblings into some kind of submission that may result in their own demise, toying with them throughout the film and appearing in the guise of numerous side characters.
And that’s about all their is to The Dark and the Wicked, which serves as a rather one-note narrative of otherworldly terror – there’s no hope or even attempt for the siblings to extricate themselves from the grip of death – but also an effective parable for the pain and helplessness of seeing a loved one slip away.
The horror is undeniably effective. Writer-director Bryan Bertino previously made 2008’s The Strangers and 2016’s underrated The Monster, and fills The Dark and the Wicked with the same kind of unrelenting dread and terror as a pair of protagonists attempt to cope with an inescapable situation.
The chills are dialed up to 11 early on during a scene in which mom chops up her fingers into meaty chunks while slicing carrots, and they don’t let up until the end credits roll. But most of the paranormal activity is explained away as dreams or hallucinations, and we’re never quite sure if what we’re seeing is real.
For that reason – the lack of a grounded setting, a more defined evil presence, or reliable narrator – The Dark and the Wicked isn’t quite as effective as Bertino’s earlier films. Still, it comes via the same sure hand that holds a masterful grip over atmosphere and effectively conveys the supernatural horror.
And some moments go beyond the usual stuff. In The Dark and the Wicked, death isn’t just a soul-grabbing demon, but a real jerk: after appearing in the form of a deranged priest (played by Xander Berkley), he gives Julie his number to call for future help. But when Julie calls it, she gets an old man in Chicago who tells her she sounds exactly like his deceased daughter. The look of sheer discomfort on Ireland’s face is palpable, and almost more unsettling than all the bloodletting in the rest of the movie.
Anyone looking for a more clearly-defined setting to experience the horror is likely to be turned off by what The Dark and the Wicked has to offer. But for those comfortable with wallowing in the unexplained for ninety minutes, Bertino gives you more than enough terror for your time.