Writer-director-producer Bryan Bertino’s debut feature, The Strangers, was a solid theatrical hit – it even scored a somewhat tardy sequel, and its home invasion theme has been mildly influential (there’s an ‘answer’ film, Extracurricular). Subsequently, he has moved away from the mainstream but continued to make intense, low-key, character-driven horror films (Mockingbird, The Monster) with a real sense of dread. The Dark and the Wicked, shot on his family farm in Texas, feels like an intensely personal work – in previous films, masked killers and a snarling cryptid have represented monstrous intrusions into ordinary lives which are already shadowed by everyday problems.
Here, the threat is almost formless, and the air of gloom so overpowering it takes a while to work out where things are going – that Bertino is tapping into some zeitgeist is suggested by a few parallels with other recent horrors which feature demonic business on a farm (Blood Harvest/The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw) or grown-ups struggling with guilt as they do their best to care for elderly parents who don’t necessarily welcome their assistance (Relic). Careworn Louise (Marin Ireland) and her family man brother Michael (Michael Abbott Jr) arrive at the farm where their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) has been caring for their unresponsive, bedridden father (Michael Zagst) – only for mother to self-destruct gruesomely, leaving her children with a several mysteries and a whole lot of problems.
Xander Berkeley shows up as a priest who aggressively makes them feel worse, and then appears to be a representative of the evil force on the land. Horrible things happen to the livestock, and other incidental characters come to harm under the influence of whatever is all around. It’s a slow-burning, rough-seams movie, with great work from Ireland as the harassed, exhausted lead.