Movie Review ~ The Dark and the Wicked


The Facts

Synopsis: When adult siblings Louise and Michael return to the farm where they grew up to say goodbye to their dying father and comfort their distressed mother, they soon find themselves overwhelmed by waking nightmares and an unstoppable evil that threatens to consume them all.

Stars: Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr., Xander Berkeley, Lynn Andrews, Julie Oliver-Touchstone

Director: Brian Bertino

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Now that we’re in November and I’ve made it through October’s 31 Days to Scare, where I bombarded myself with numerous scare titles throughout the course of the month (numbering more than 31 I should add), I had a realization.  There’s a simplicity in the best scary movies that no loud music stings, gory displays of bloodletting, or cats thrown in front of the camera to make you leap back in your seat can match.  Not every filmmaker has that kind of restraint to resist the urge to go for that easy out.  So whether it be an antsy studio worried their target audience won’t be satisfied or a director that gives into their commercial side of the brain, I started to notice how many films wind up on this path…especially the thrown cats.

It’s been twelve years, but I think my nerves still haven’t quite recovered from seeing The Strangers, director Brian Bertino’s 2008 debut feature, so I was prepared for the same kind of spine-jangling experience with his fourth film, The Dark and the Wicked.  Bertino is a filmmaker that takes his time between films and doesn’t seem to be driven or tempted by the financial side of the business.  In all honesty, I haven’t seen the two films he’s made since The Strangers but get the impression they follow the same efficient tactics he employed in his first film.  Watching his new offering as part of The 56th Chicago International Film Festival, I tried to recreate that experience from home by checking it out late at night with all the lights off.  While it has the requisite scares that admirably often emanate not from something leaping out but just quietly appearing in the frame, if you sweep all that away there’s not a whole lot left for the film to offer viewers seeking more than a quick thrill.

Not that Bertino and his cast don’t give it a helluva good college try.  I almost instantly regretted starting it so late and considered turning a small light on thanks to a prologue that opens in a workroom adjacent to an isolated farmhouse where a woman (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) works mending clothes late at night.  What’s scary about that, you may ask?  Well, all the mannequins, of course.  A disturbance among her farm animals is the first sign to us of imminent danger but is gradually revealed as an evil presence that has set up residence on the property, preying on her and her invalid husband.

The arrival of the couple’s two grown children should alleviate some of this burden but both bring their own baggage along.  Louise (Marin Ireland, The Irishman) is single and without much in her life, a never-worn wedding dress still sitting half-completed in her mother’s workshop.  Leaving his wife and two young daughters at their home a far distance away, Michael (Michael Abbott Jr., The Death of Dick Long) has returned after a long absence to confront some guilt he’s pushed down for not being there to help in the care of his sick parent.  These emotions play a part in the overall horrors that unfold over the time the family spends together, with late night happenings turning from frightening to tragic.

Bertino keeps up a good sense of dread, at least for a while.  Yet it becomes repetitive and stagnant quicker than I had hoped.  Despite a rather unsettling visit from a preacher man (Xander Berkeley, The Wall of Mexico) their agnostic mother had supposedly found comfort in, the cycle of nightly spooky sights runs out of steam.  In films like this that depend on engagement, once the mind starts to wonder what the point of all this intense terror is for, you know something is amiss.  Also, the whole fractured family trope with grown children returning home to find one or more of their parents “not quite right” feels stale and the cracks show in Bertino’s script, though the performances try to keep it fresh.

I tried to like The Dark and the Wicked, actively tried, but the longer it kept establishing and re-establishing the broken relationships and continued in its bleak journey toward nowhere, the less I was interested in the destination.  In his past films, Bertino has been more comfortable in a certain inevitability with his characters but here he doesn’t seem totally able to decide if he wants to relinquish their fates with as much of a clear cut message. That leaves them and the viewer in a strange, uncomfortable place…and not in a good way.

**Note: A shorter version of this review appeared in my coverage of The 56th Chicago International Film Festival**

Movie Review ~ Triggered


The Facts

Synopsis: Terror strikes when nine campers wake up with bombs strapped to their chests, all with varying times on their countdown clocks.

Stars: Liesl Ahlers, Reine Swart, Steven John Ward, Suraya Rose Santos, Cameron Scott, Russell Crous, Craig Urbani, Kayla Privett, Michael Lawrence Potter, Paige Bonnin, Sean Cameron Michael

Director: Alastair Orr

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  When they first premiered, I was an ardent fan of shows like Survivor and Big Brother.  In the beginning, the entertainment value of watching people trying to survive not just the situation but each other was a lot of fun but over time the chuckle factor wore off and I got to see that it was just an adult version of high school.  The popular often won out, sometimes beaten by the more clever nerd or upset by a two-faced villain.  The strategy for winning was so laid out that pretty soon contestants started winning by NOT having a strategy and the cycle began again.  Eventually, I couldn’t take the stress anymore and had to give them all up.  One thing is for sure…I would never have made it on those shows.

Watching a movie like Triggered, a South African thriller (that’s a new one!), that is premiering on demand this weekend, I was reminded of these television shows and of the fact that I’d be the first one out of the game.  Here’s an intriguing set-up on its own that’s been done in some form or another before but given a ruthless twist that elevates it from being just another recycled concept slapped onto a buzz-worthy title.  Like the nine twenty-somethings it features, Triggered is terribly shallow and obnoxious throughout yet it has a sort of perverted charm to it that makes it more watchable than you’d think and more memorable than it should have ever been.

Reuniting for a weekend in celebration of a football game, nine high school chums decide to save some cash and rough it in the woods, which is where we find them at the beginning.  Not everyone is happy about the set-up, with several of the couples already bickering and old adversaries puffing up their chests to intimidate the others.  Though they all appear to know one another well, it’s clear from their brief campfire chat in the opening moments that their long history has provided ample opportunity for bruised emotions and frustrations to build.  Plus, it appears there is a mystery from their past surrounding a fallen friend that no one wants to revisit…never a good sign.

Waking up in the middle of the night, they find themselves in a fairly peculiar situation.  All have been outfitted with suicide bombs that are set to different times, courtesy of their old high school teacher who had a son that was formerly a part of their group but died of an overdose at one of their parties. (Ah ha!  You knew that would come back into play.)  As payback for his belief that one of them deliberately killed his child, he’s suited them up with the explosives and told them that only one will get out alive.  The diabolical plan has one more cruel curveball that I’ve deliberately eliminated from the provided plot synopsis and just in case you haven’t discovered it yet, I’ll let you find out on your own.  I’ll just say it gives these friends a chance to test their loyalties to one another pretty quickly.

We don’t get much in the way of deep character introductions and seeing that the film is entirely shot at night, it takes longer than it should for director Alastair Orr to properly identify everyone.  I spent a fair amount of the film not being able to tell three of the men apart, not that the workmanlike script from David D. Jones helps Orr much.  A number of the inter-personal conflicts seem entirely surface-based and just reinforces the feeling that this generation would literally sacrifice their friends for their own advancement.  The performances run the gamut as well with some merely serviceable to very watchable like Liesl Ahlers as the mousy girlfriend of the dead boy who hasn’t ever truly recovered from the loss and Reine Swart playing the brainy one her friends like to take down a notch every time she incorporates a high falutin phrase.

Much of the film is just a lot of running around and screaming in the woods and some fairly gory sequences sprinkled throughout.  Though it’s shot well and we can see it all nicely, you do feel after a while you’ve seen that same tree in a number of supposedly different locations.  Orr seems to be most comfortable with the parts of the film with the most screen business happening, so it’s likely a good thing the film moves so quickly.  It’s a mean-spirited film, there’s no getting around that, yet I found myself more actively engaged than I expected with the final result.  I think for the film to be a greater success Triggered could have spent more time on the front end with helping us discover these characters or found a more interesting way of inserting these moments throughout the night, but almost in spite of all of this, Triggered still manages to find a comfortable bullseye.