The Dark and the Wicked knows exactly how to scare - it just can’t do much else. Bryan Bertino proved in The Strangers that he’s an expert with the tools of a horror filmmaker, and he doesn’t disappoint in that realm in his follow-up film. He uses slow pans and uncommon attention to what’s in the frame - and especially what may be lurking just outside of it - to build unease and dread with precision. He combines quick close-ups with shifts in perspective to jar both character and viewer's sense of a reality alike, unwilling to let anyone feel even the least bit comfortable in their skin. And he knows how to be patient, I mean truly patient, without being "slow" in the typical modern horror sense.
The Dark and the Wicked brings siblings Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) back to their ancestral family farm when their father falls sick. Their mother is acting strange. The house creaks and squeaks. Yes, The Dark and the Wicked is a ghost story with all the tell-tale signs of one.
But in The Dark and the Wicked, all of Bertino's technical know-how leads very quickly to...nowhere. The film slowly reveals itself as a one-trick pony, as Bertino poses question after question in service of a growing sense of dread, yet ultimately finds himself unable to answer most of them. The filmmaking effectively serves to chill and thrill in the first hour, but as the viewer slowly becomes aware that there's nothing more, even the virtuosic terror loses its edge, and the monotony of empty technique takes over.
The film has been described by many as one of the darkest, most twisted films you're likely to see in 2020. But where a killer with no rhyme or reason can often be the most terrifying - the horror we cannot understand - an entire film with the same lack of justification merely falls flat. We're scared of the unknown, but that doesn't mean the filmmaker must be.
Marin Ireland delivers a convincing performance as a daughter dragged back, and Abbott Jr. shows skepticism well, which pays off magnificently in a finely-wrought, climactic scene - though it's Abbott Jr.'s performance that sells an otherwise absurd twist. Bertino clearly has talent as a director; let's hope his next script is more deserving of his work behind the camera.