The Dark and the Wicked (4 stars)

The Dark and the Wicked

This meticulously crafted horror from Bryan Bertino delivers terror and compassion

The writer-director of The Strangers, Bryan Bertino, returns to unnerve us with a stripped-back chiller that meticulously creates and sustains an air of formidable menace. With its crisp cinematography, awkward family dynamics and strong performances it tends toward the classier end of the horror spectrum, having more in common with films like Relic, Hereditary and The Witch. And yet when it delivers frights they are unashamedly full-throttle – a strong combination that means it should satisfy a wide range of genre fans.

Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. play siblings Louise and Michael Straker, who return to the family farm in Texas to help their mum (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) care for their dying dad (Michael Zagst). But it's quickly apparent that all is far from right in the household, with an evil presence lurking that seems bent on tormenting their mother and stealing their helpless father's soul.

Musing on death, religion, and family guilt and responsibilities, the themes are pretty standard but the film is far more interested in generating an uncomfortable atmosphere than rigorously exploring any particular subject. If there are plenty of jump-scare surprises, narratively Bertino keeps things nice and simple and, although it features a classic horror soundscape of creaks, groans and bangs and plenty of other genre tropes (mannequins, shadowy figures, people getting possessed or rising from the dead), it also mixes things up.

A carrot chopping scene is a horrible highlight, and the devil may well be behind it all, yet the family aren't god-fearing (how many times have we seen that in films set in rural America?). When a priest arrives (played by Xander Berkeley), it's not to conduct an exorcism and he's treated with suspicion by the siblings, as if he had planted odd ideas in their mother's head. There's a subtle sensitivity to the plight of this gruff, taciturn brood and there are no terrible family secrets waiting to be unearthed, while Louise and Michael are not simply set on staying in the house of horrors no matter what's thrown at them.

If Bertino's ability to stray from the norm is refreshing, it's his attention to details, both prosaic and ominous, and masterful ratcheting up of tension that really impresses; in his hands, creating dread and unleashing terror feel like a fine art. And once his film has you in its grip it has no intention of letting you go.

Available to watch on Shudder from Thu 25 Feb.

The Dark and the Wicked

  • 4 stars
  • 2020
  • US
  • 1h 33min
  • Directed by: Bryan Bertino
  • Written by: Bryan Bertino
  • Cast: Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr., Xander Berkeley, Lynn Andrews, Julie Oliver-Touchstone, Michael Zagst, Tom Nowicki, Ella Ballentine
  • UK release: 25 February 2021

In rural Texas, on an isolated farm, a man is facing his last days with a terminal illness. His distant children return to be close to him, but as they do, an evil supernatural presence begins to terrorise the family.