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
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**