I have a confession: I’ve never seen any of writer/director Bryan Bertino’s films.
In my defense, over the years his films have been hit or miss–Mockingbird was so critically savaged that I’m sure I’m not the only one who gave it a pass–but I’m one of the very few horror devotees who has never watched The Strangers. One of the reasons I’ve avoided it is because of a pet peeve that has evolved over the years into overblown self-righteousness–whenever I discover that a movie claiming to be “based on a true story” and that “true story” doesn’t even remotely resemble the plot, the creators immediately lose all credibility. Look, I get the concept of artistic license, but there is a big difference between artistic license and a blatant load of lying horseshit…which was the case with The Strangers. Ostensibly, The Strangers was based upon the 1981 Keddie murders, in which a woman and three kids were brutally murdered in their rural cabin-esque home. Period. While there have been suspects, the Keddie murders were never officially solved, which means nobody has any idea who their killers were and thus, it is impossible to know whatever fucked up motive they had for killing a defenseless woman and three children. The only similarity between plot and reality is that they were inhabiting a semi-boonies house that couldn’t even properly be called remote. So there is no way to know if they were wiped out by one or many rando degenerates “because they were home”. Torturing facts to somehow link the movie to the “true story” is a pointless scam and I doubt it made any difference at the box office, anyway. At any rate, it’s dishonest, gimmicky and dumb. I refused to watch just on principle.
The other reason is that I happen to live in mid-boonies, just south of BFE–where the nights are quiet and beautiful and creepy as fuck. I wouldn’t open the door for an injured infant, never mind some weirdo who keeps coming back. Maybe it’s because I’m a former city girl, but if you knock on my door late at night, chances are I’ll call 911 and let the cops figure it out. You know why? Because there truly are some nihilistic home-invading assholes out there who will kill you because they want to celebrate Stabbin’ Sunday or your dog barked at them in an insulting manner or…just because you were home. So even without the enormous “true story” lie, I couldn’t buy into someone being astoundingly foolish enough to engage with some weirdo in the middle of the night, in deep boonies…completely unarmed. Which, of course, kind of fucks off any chance that I’d watch the sequel, either.
The Monster is a movie I keep meaning to see, have actually been on the verge of watching, trembling finger hovering over my Roku remote…and then I would chicken out. Not because I feel that it will be too scary; I’m scared that the monster will look stupid and then I’ll be pissed that I invested precious viewing time into another janky CGI unintentionally-funny creature feature when I could’ve been watching one of many great indie horrors out there lately…like The Dark and the Wicked.
I’m just going to say it: The Dark and the Wicked is a minimalist masterpiece.
Bold words, I know. But after the third, deep-dive viewing, with a lot of starts and stops and obsessive note-taking, I’ve discovered there is a whole lot going on hiding within that trim plot. Despite so many reviews to the contrary, there is nothing simple about The Dark and the Wicked; it’s much more than a terrifying study about loss and isolation. And the fact that Bryan Bertino is able to tell this complex tale in such a spare, laconic manner is brilliant.
And I have a fan theory that I absolutely believe was intentional on Bertino’s part…but in the interest of keeping this blog spoiler-free, I’ll save that for the (over) analysis.
The synopsis seems simple enough–siblings Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Louise (the fucking phenomenal Marin Ireland), follow their guilty consciences to the family’s remote goat ranch in a long-overdue bid to help their mother nurse their dying father…even though their mother, Virginia (Julia Oliver-Touchstone), has told them repeatedly not to come. And to be fair, “I don’t need your help. Don’t even come” sounds like a classic passive-aggressive maneuver. Or maybe that’s just in my family. At any rate, they are shocked and confused when she rebuffs them. Still they attribute her outbursts and dark eccentricities to the deep depression of grief and isolation and heavy responsibility of caring for the dying. Or that is what their rational guilty consciences tell them.
After an especially graphic, “yeah, saw that coming…but I didn’t see that coming” night, Virginia is gone and the awesome, creepy responsibility of caring for their father suddenly falls to Michael and Louise. Now the darkness that destroyed Virginia preys upon Michael and Louise…and they soon discover that the only thing worse than believing you’re insane is knowing you’re not.
It would be tempting to refer to The Dark and the Wicked as a slow burn, because it presents its horrors in such a calm, quiet manner…but it’s no slow burn; fucked up events kick in very early and keep coming to the final frame. What feels like a slow burn is the merciless creeping dread that suffuses The Dark and the Wicked from first frame to last. There are a few standard jumpscares…but the most terrifying scenes are not the baroque, showy acts but rather the beatific smile on a dead woman’s face as she peacefully levitates above you. These are the horrors that fucked me up in the best possible way–because of the almost matter-of-fact way that Bertino presents them: “Yes, this really happened. And it will keep happening. Better get used to it because this is your forever”.
Before I end this and begin gleefully obsessing over the analysis, there is a glaring wrong that I must address. Again and again and again, I’ve read statements like, “…there is a deep bond in this family”, “…but it is their closeness as a family…” or “…they face down the terror with shared loyalty…”
The only thing I can figure out is that these lovely, well-meaning folks either grew up in such a stable, bell-curve normal household that they are incapable of recognizing the signs of massive dysfunction, or they grew up in orphanages and don’t understand family dynamics, period. These people are not close. Their bond is tenuous, at best. Not only do they not like each other, they don’t even know each other…and have gone out of their way to make sure they don’t. I’m not dunking on these reviewers, but this isn’t a quibble. Because a central fucking theme is that it is from this fetid mix of guilt, resentment, indifference, selfishness, crippled communication and isolation that allows evil to take root. It is essential to understand the family dynamics to understand the story itself. Bertino doesn’t hand-feed the plot to his viewers; he assumes they are capable of inferring a lot from a little…but it’s still pretty obvious. Granted, I grew up in a spectacularly dysfunctional family, so I’m fluent in the ways of family fuckery, but I think most viewers will recognize these toxic vulnerabilities which allow evil to flourish.
Next, I will release what is sure to be a ridiculously detailed analysis of The Dark and the Wicked, because I can’t help it. BUT…I have a theory which I consider to be absolutely legit and perhaps even intentional, which puts a whole new spin on the story…
The Dark and the Wicked is streaming now on Shudder…and if you haven’t subscribed yet, it’s reason enough to join up!