‘The Dark and the Wicked’ Review: Flawed But Fearsome

It’s frustrating to see good craftsmanship held back by shopworn writing, but Bryan Bertino’s rural Texas-set haunting flick The Dark and the Wicked manages to wring something enjoyable out of its thin characters and pat script. Built around the collapse of a Texan farming family gutted by its patriarch’s (Michael Zagst) coma and imminent death, Bertino’s film is relentlessly nihilistic. Siblings Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) circle the question of what to do with their aging parents, toward whom they seem to feel more guilty obligation than affection, as around them the family farm winds slowly toward rack and ruin, a malignant presence tormenting them with visions of self-harm and calamity. Cinematographer Tristan Nyby makes a meal out of the domestic aspects of the film’s horror — a three-legged goat running through a sunlit forest, barn doors gaping like empty eye sockets, dusty interiors freighted with junk and shadows. It’s enough to offset the dullness of the film’s possession effects, which crib without much pretense from It Follows, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Witch, and any number of black-veins and white-eyes ghost flicks.

As Louise, Ireland is gaunt and reactive, a haunted woman whose past and relationships to her family members are left purposefully unclear. Her chemistry with Abbot Jr. is believably distant while still managing to engage, and her physical performance is the sort of thing a less attentive director of photography might miss — anxious and long-limbed, constantly cringing and trying to hide it. In one sequence she and her brother cut down a hanged body from a barn rafter, the frame wide and motionless as they drop things, tussle, and whimper in terror. It’s tense, but it’s not the tension of a monster lurking in the background or a door slowly creaking open with no visible hand to move it. Rather it’s the frantic rush that comes with trying desperately to do something you already know in the pit of your stomach is far too little, far too late. They’re rushing to stitch up a wound long after the victim’s bled out.

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The film’s setting is one of its greatest strengths, and the thorough set-dressing and gorgeous nature sequences do a great deal to impart a sense of realness to its otherwise scanty story. The knife with which the siblings’ mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) mutilates herself is scratched and worn, the cutting board against which she does it well-used by years or even decades of prep work. The porch furniture, the mismatched wall paneling — it all feels wonderfully cohesive, as thoughtfully chosen and applied as the haunting song of wolves and coyotes echoing in the velvet darkness of the flat, seemingly endless country surrounding the farm. The Dark and the Wicked may be a minor pleasure burdened by creative shortfalls, but its technical excellence and strong performances make it well worth a watch.