Nebraska is haunted by the ghosts of agriculture’s past. Barns with scoliosis roofs and broken windowpanes like missing teeth litter the interstates and highways. They are the discarded and nightmarish reminders of the soiled hands that fed us before Big Farm, in turn, devoured our feeders. What? Is this not what y’all think about when driving through the rural ocean that Omaha’s island resides in?
Writer/director Bryan Bertino’s The Dark and the Wicked agrees with me about at least one fundamental truth: Farmhouses are effing terrifying. If Satan was going to spend a summer abroad, he would absolutely kick it in a pasture on a small acreage surrounded by trees that don’t seem to have leaves on them no matter the season. A cut below the cream of the “horror movie as trauma metaphor” crop, the film doesn’t offer substantial reflection on mundane human tragedy so much as it injects family burdens with a heaping helping of Hell.
Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbot Jr) are wayward siblings who return home to the family farm after their dad’s nebulously awful sickness takes a turn for the worse. Their mom (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) is taking it well. If “taking it well” means “communing with Lucifer and engaging in some light self-mutilation.” It doesn’t take long for Lou and Mike to realize what’s happening is a very special kind of bad. Hallucinations soon give way to goat slaughter and explicit taunts from a demonic presence that seems to be really, really enjoying itself.
Films like The Babadook, Hereditary, and Relic were less concerned with heebie-ing audience’s jeebies and more obsessed with reminding viewers that movie monsters can’t lay a glove on the horror of real-life personal traumas. The Dark and the Wicked is much more concerned with jeeping your creepers. That’s not an insult, just an observation.
The film rarely resorts to jump scares and earns its discomfort by deploying every frightful flavor the genre has to offer. You got your face spiders. You got your slowly severed fingers. You got your creepy-voiced possessed weirdo talking on the phone like it was a David Lynch movie or something. If there’s a scare tactic that wasn’t used, Beelzebub probably didn’t grant legal permission.
Bertino doesn’t bore with exposition or explanation, which is just so impossibly refreshing. The more that reasoning and rationality is attempted in a horror movie, the more it actually cuts the tie that binds the terror together. The Dark and the Wicked is sparse in virtually all ways, a spiritual sibling to something like Oz Perkins’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter in its brief, measured frightening.
Not to detassel these children of the corn, but expectations should be reasonably set going in. This is neither “the scariest movie in years” nor deceptively profound. It is just an icky bit of rural terror, well planted. For those who see the sinister in our surrounding sunken silos, this should harvest a decent crop of chills.
Grade = B+
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Alix Turner at Ready Steady Cut says “This is a serious film, morbid for a while, and then declaring those who are doomed can expect no help from God.”
Dolores Quintana on Medium says “The Dark and the Wicked took a hammer and tongs to the audience’s soul.”
Michael Ordoña at the LA Times says the fact that the film “doesn’t strictly adhere to the genre or really any firmly established set of rules, makes it what they call in baseball “effectively wild.” It isn’t exactly terrifying, but is well-acted and sinister enough to rise (levitate ominously?) above the pack.”