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.

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