In 2008, Bryan Bertino emerged in the horror genre with THE STRANGERS, a haunting twist on the home invasion. Then, MOCKINGBIRD in 2014 and THE MONSTER in 2016, two very different films that each showcase the destruction of the domestic space and the American dream. His work is bleak and unafraid to critique the crumbling image of American perfection. With his latest film, THE DARK AND THE WICKED, Bertino solidifies his spot at the king of American nihilism.
On a small farm in Texas, a man lies on his death bed. Upon hearing the news of their father’s grim condition, Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott, Jr.) return home to say their goodbyes and help their mother. But when they arrive, something is different. A dread has fallen over the farm. Everything feels gray and empty, and the air is eerily still. It is a place that gives you goosebumps just by looking at it — not due to its appearance, but due to the energy emanating from it. Yet, the siblings decide to stay despite several warnings from their mother to leave. Soon they discover the family is being tortured by a dark force. Why? Simply because it could.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s a thematic trend in Bertino’s films. Bad things happen to regular people randomly. There is no rhyme or reason to the tragedy; it just happens. There is no family curse in THE DARK AND THE WICKED or a pact with a demon. This family simply caught the eye of something evil and became its plaything. This is so much more horrifying than something being accidentally invited in; this could happen to anyone at any time.
To put it simply, there is nothing happy in this film. Trauma is just laid bare as the family falls apart. While it sounds like an unpleasant viewing experience, it is actually a rather cathartic one due to Bertino’s commitment to that bleakness. This isn’t torture porn where people are getting ripped apart, but instead an emotionally exhausting journey that refuses to offer a silver lining or glimmer of hope. This is what I’m calling American nihilism, where the American dream is decimated before our very eyes. Just as the New French Extremity was a violent reaction to a national identity crisis, American nihilism is a somber examination of the destruction of traditional, hegemonic American values. The man can no longer protect the family. There is no clear explanation for why things happen nor is there a redeeming moment where at least one person escapes. These films confront our new reality that nothing is safe and no idealized vision of our country can protect us.
Importantly, there is not a plethora of gore in this film. There are very specific, and shocking, moments that snap the building tension when flesh is finally ripped open. And these moments truly count. You may never look at a knitting needle the same way. Due to the more emotional terror of THE DARK AND THE WICKED, fear is created through strange noises, lucid dreams, and hazy visions of the dead. Bertino blurs the line between the real and the imaginary to disorient us, who are never really sure if we can believe their eyes.
While I have discussed the film’s bleakness at length, such an emotionally taxing experience is balanced expertly by the cast, who keep the film from toppling into melodrama. Ireland and Abbott play surprisingly close siblings who despite their differences want the best for their family. They are quick to realize something is wrong but have no idea what to do about it. Ireland in particular plays her character with so much exhaustion that it feels like this is her own father. These performances feel authentic, helping capture a strong, yet sometimes strained family bond that you want to mourn yourself.
Everything about this film feels cursed. From the way shots are framed to oppressive atmosphere created through camerawork and dialogue, THE DARK AND THE WICKED feels like you are watching something you shouldn’t; watching feels like a betrayal. As we watch this family in its darkest and most vulnerable moments, it feels too intimate, like we are voyeurs to the spectacle of grief. It is steeped in a pervading dread that creeps into the brain and slowly attaches to its host. It leaves you empty. And I loved every minute of it.