The Dark and the Wicked

★★★

Is writer/producer/director Bryan Bertino OK? (Granted, a lot of us haven’t really been OK the past coupla days, but I’m talking OK in the grander sense.) I’ve only seen two of the filmmaker’s four flicks – 2008’s “The Strangers” and now “The Dark and the Wicked,” available on VOD and in select theaters beginning Fri. Nov. 6, but he’s made quite the impression.

Bertino makes me think of a certain ditty from “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.” “So what would Bryan Bertino do/If he were here today?/He would torture his protagonists for an hour and a half or two/That’s what Bryan Bertino’d do!” Bertino appears to be a cinematic sadist, but not an untalented one.

Siblings Louise (Marin Ireland, flexing her frightened muscles of late between this and the recent “The Empty Man”) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr., a veteran of many of writer/director Jeff Nichols’ movies) have returned home to their family farm as their Father (Michael Zagst) is dying. Despite the old man’s imminent demise, the siblings seem more concerned about their Mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone). She told the siblings not to return home and seems upset that they didn’t listen. Michael reads a passage of Mom’s diary without permission revealing that she thinks an evil entity seeks to harm her husband – it’s not long before the duo concur with the matriarch’s assessment. A Priest (reliable character actor Xander Berkeley) turns up offering guidance and miniature crucifixes (the same ones their Mom’s sporting despite not being religious), but the siblings can’t make heads or tails out of whether he’s friend or foe.

“The Dark and the Wicked” is a slow burn exercise in supernatural terror. Despair looms LARGE over the proceedings. Bertino and his crew expertly ratchet up the tension until it’s released in disturbing detail. There are instances of hand and eye trauma as well as animal cruelty that I wish I could unsee. Some of this shit’s the gnarliest of the gnarly. There’s a sequence in which Bertino pulls the rug out from underneath his audience so expertly and with such a perverse playfulness that I couldn’t help but cackle despite the depravity being depicted. Bertino’s jolts register as well as they do thanks to his two primary actors – Ireland and Abbott. You buy these two as siblings, you get where they’re coming from and you feel for them even when you don’t like them. They’re both stage-trained performers and it shows – the acting is markedly better than in many genre movies.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting a picture called “The Dark and the Wicked” to be all love and light. Bertino’s made a film that’s both effective and affective and at the end of the day that makes it successful. It’s far from bad – it just ain’t my bag.

Spontaneous

★★★★

Most of us look back on high school and have some things we wish we would have done differently.

For many of us, there are regrets based on fears and insecurity that held us back in those teenage years. We were too unsure of ourselves to ask that one girl to prom or too afraid to being ridiculed to try out for the school play. And so on.

But what if you were uncertain you’d make it to graduation? Well, you might live your life differently.

Based on a 2016 young adult novel, “Spontaneous” is a new teen romance/thriller/comedy that depicts teenagers wondering what the future holds for them while dealing with classmates spontaneously and randomly exploding for no apparent reason.

Yes, teenagers explode in this movie. And it’s not neat and tidy. These are bloody, messy explosions that are more like a balloon popping than a bomb going off. Faces are covered in red-dyed cornstarch like the library scene in the made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King’s “It.”

Katherine Langford (a rising star seen in “Knives Out” and “13 Reasons Why”) stars as Mara, a senior who is shaken after seeing her classmate inexplicably burst like a bubble. She takes hallucinogenic mushrooms (mixed into her pumpkin spiced latte) in a moment of shock and grief only to meet face-to-face with her secret admirer who began texting her after the disaster. Charlie Plummer (“Lean on Pete”) plays her love interest who decides to ask her out after realizing he could explode too and he had to begin living his life.

Senior classmates continue to explode and the government begins to try to find out why. Religious fanatics claim it’s a curse. School is cancelled and teenagers are quarantined as the government promises they are quickly developing a cure (an unintentional parallel to COVID-19, even though this movie/book were made far before the recent pandemic).

The deaths themselves are done in such a preposterous way that there’s room for some clever dark comedy, even though it’s dealing with the topic of young people dying. There are jokes about high school memorials with oddly sexual songs sang and there’s even a very appropriate reference to David Cronenberg, director of “Scanners” (if you’ve seen that scene, you know why).

There are some laugh at loud moments that only this film could create, such as the romantic couple making jokes about “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” while laying in government hospital beds with tubes inserted, separated by plastic sheeting.

The romance between the two leads is very sweet and you really start to pull for both of them to come out of the film unscathed. But when you know a character could explode at any moment, there’s an added layer of tension to every hug and every kiss. You keep waiting to see if either one will pop.

There are some flaws to this film. The narration, while effective, seems like a pretty by-the-numbers device to frame this story. But even when the movie is cliche at times, first-time director Brian Duffield’s camerawork and the leads’ charismatic performances keep the audience engaged throughout.

The film shifts in tone quite a bit, first laughing at the deaths and then taking them seriously with tear-inducing somber narration. At times, it can be sappy. It even resembles “The Fault in Our Stars” a little. But there’s always a joke around the corner to break the tension.

The movie fumbles its closing message a little. In a meta-joke, Langford’s character narrates that she isn’t sure what she’s learned from the whole ordeal except that life sucks, but it also can be great at times. She ends up settling on, “start living your life today” which actually is a little different than “live like this day is your last.” (The latter lends itself to walking around as if actions have no consequences, while the former leads people to not put off until tomorrow what you can do today).

“Spontaneous” has received a theatrical run in addition to being available to rent on VOD, but this film isn’t playing currently in the Indianapolis area. It’s actually worth spending $10 for the early access rental because in my mind it’s probably the best teen romance movie I’ve seen since “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” in 2015.