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{Fantasia Fest}The Dark And The Wicked Review- A Grisly Possession Tale

The Dark and the Wicked is an ominous slow-burner with great performances and enough creeping dread for even the most jaded audience.

Bryan Bertino’s The Dark and the Wicked is the kind of insidious possession story that sticks with you. His previous film The Strangers shares some of the same bones of this desolate setting and unavoidable horror. It’s terrifying from almost the beginning before anything happens, you know something will. Not because it’s a horror movie, but because it feels wrong. Bone deep wrong. This is a family and a home in crisis, and it isn’t going to end well for anyone. Even when murky family secrets and only hinted at mythology are left unresolved, the fear remains. As with most movies of this type, logic is thrown out the door.

Louise(Marin Ireland) and Michael(Michael Abbot Jr.) have gone back to their parent’s home to assist their mother(Julie Oliver-Touchstone) and their dying father(Michael Zagst). He is near death, and the siblings have come back to say goodbye and help their mother. Immediately upon arrival, she tells them they shouldn’t have come and quickly into the film, you know why. Something terrible is there seeping out of the walls and filling anything it can get its clutches on with decay and filth.

The Dark And The Wicked

The intense foreboding of image-laden story-telling locks the viewers to the screen with a screech of the well-timed soundtrack and a jarring extended camera hold on the weariest of faces. Like some of the greatest arthouse films, the location is as much part of the story as the people. Similar tonally as Robert Eggers’ The Witch, this possession tale is family-based, and the characters are all isolated. They are separated from each other and those in towns around them. Set on a goat farm, of course, even the innocent animals are suspect and symbolism for what is coming. Something evil has arrived, and it doesn’t matter if it was invited or has always been there, the results are the same.

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Writer/director Bertino knows how to shoot dread. His passion and talent for shadowy doorways and dimly lit people are used well here to drive the “who or what is happening” plot. As in The Strangers, the visuals are strong in The Dark and the Wicked, and coupled with Marin Ireland’s performance; they make the film successful.

Marin Ireland is hot right now. Like scorching hot between her pitch-perfect portrayal of young Sheldon Coopers Mom to the abused but tough as nails girlfriend Sissy in The Umbrella Academy Season 2, she is quickly making a name for herself. She is perfect for genre roles as her emotive eyes convey all the pain, fear, and anger needed to tell a complete horror story. Exhaustion is etched on her tear-stained face even before anything happens, and the lines get deeper the longer she stays in her family home.

Ireland is a star. She is fully committed, fearless, and engrossing. Without her, The Dark And The Wicked wouldn’t succeed. This is precisely the kind of role she excels in. Ireland has a twangy, heavy quality to her voice that resonates for anyone from that neck of the woods and the hollow-eyed worn down quality of someone who has family drama or trauma in their past but still feels the tug of responsibility.

Michael Abbott Jr, who you last saw in The Death of Dick Long and the upcoming release Hell House reboot, is the beleaguered tough-guy brother who was raised on Marlboros and hay. He knows intuitively there is something wrong with his parent’s home, his increasingly erratic acting sister, and dying father but can’t admit it. His hard wiring prevents the pragmatic man from seeing the creeping evil before it is too late. He is a runner who just waited too long to do so.

By the time he finally admits there is a problem, spirits are haunting the house at will. Glimpses of who he is outside of his childhood home come through in brief phone conversations. Those snippets round out and make Michael more sympathetic than initially presented. He is a father himself, and he is afraid. That terror is palpable, and as the film reaches the final act, all pretenses are gone. This is an evil place and a family in crisis. They should run while they have the chance. Taking a page from every haunted house story ever, grim responsibility, and bad timing prevent them from taking the advice. A stereotypical but memorable info dump courtesy of Xander Berkeley’s(Priest) laid the groundwork that things are already too far gone, and they are only going to get worse.

The soundtrack by Tom Schraeder drives you forward like cows being led to slaughter. You don’t want to go; you know what is coming, and yet you go anyway. As you peek from behind fingers and beg for the end of certain scenes, I won’t spoil for you; his soundtrack plays on in plucks from string instruments and clanging chimes. Elements from classic possession movies that have come before like the Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby prepare you psychologically for the horrors to come. “She told us not to come” is the refrain repeated over and over as Schraeder’s relentless dissonant chords play on.

Production design by Scott Colquitt captures the creaking, rotting decay of an overworked and neglected farmhouse. Rumored to be Bertino’s actual farm, it is a place that whispers stories from its walls. Every moan of the wind and groan of the well-used wood is heard and capitalized on. The bones of old animals and past traumas are hung on the walls like reminders of things better left forgotten. As the film concludes, you are left wondering if the evil that took root in the house might have always been there. Similar to Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse, there appears to be an inescapable cycle of pain.

Whether the film is trying to capture the same resonance as this summer’s excellent rumination on grief Relic, demonic possession, or something far darker, we never know. For all the frustrating ambiguity, it is still scary. Credit Ireland and Bertino, along with camera work by Tristan Nyby, for delivering an incomplete but yet terrifying film.

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This is a well-tred story, but that doesn’t mean this one doesn’t cut deep. There are so many moments that steal your breath or have you leaning forward under the weight of the tension in the scene. Horrors are telegraphed, and when they come, they are nothing short of cringeworthy and profoundly affecting. The Dark And The Wicked builds dread layer by layer with repeated calls from nowhere and bloated, floating corpses. In only takes one week for madness to take hold, but it feels like an eternity in the way good indy horror does. As the calendar plods to an eventuality, you can feel coming but are powerless to prevent you join Lousie and Michael on a painful crawl towards death and destruction.

The Dark and the Wicked premiered at Fantasia Fest 2020 and will get a wider release in theaters on November 6th and Shudder will get it in 2021.

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