“The Dark and the Wicked” is a quietly gloomy thriller that wraps a number of horror tropes up in a tidy, compact package.
Writer-director Bryan Bertino (“The Strangers”) keeps his effects simple, his shocks few and his tone funereal in this story of menace visiting a rural Texas farm.
But what sells it is the buy-in. A good cast totally commits to acting “the moment,” letting us see the journey from “This can’t be real!” denial to “Why is this happening?” all the way to “Is escape even possible?”
And what’s the cardinal rule of horror? If they believe it, we believe it.
Marin Ireland of “The Irishman” and TV’s “Umbrella Academy” is Louise, a child of the farm who’s come home to comfort her mother and watch her father die. Just a few spare words of dialogue suggest life hasn’t worked out the way she’d hoped. There’s resignation in this homecoming.
And her mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) isn’t making it easier, starting with “I told you not to come.” Mom is trapped in the routine of the place, testy and embittered.
Her son Michael (Michael Abbott Jr., just seen in “Peace in the Valley”) is no comfort, either.
“It’s gon’be OK, Mama.”
“WHAT’s gonna be OK?”
Her husband is catatonic, in bed with a home health care nurse during the day. But at night, she’s there alone. And something creepy is going on inside, with the creaking doors and floorboards, and outside with their sheep.
As the siblings get a fresh dose of “I TOLD you not to come” just often enough to renew their regret that they did, first one and then the other recognizes that something above and beyond an impending death is going terribly wrong here.
Bertino keeps the menace mostly off-camera, building towards the shocks that come from knives, gruesome makeup, simply-staged apparitions and the like.
“Security” for the sheep is a string of bottles, horseshoes and other pieces of metal that rattle if anything comes to get at their flock. It rattles, and it’s not the wind doing the rattling. We never see what’s coming for them, but Bertino keeps his camera in tight on the alarmed, confused reactions of the sheep to let us know they do.
A shadow looming behind a character rises up behind her. A ghost appears outside, reappears inside and reappears again — instantly behind the person wondering why the bedroom light keeps switching on by itself. Smiles from seemingly benign characters curl into Joker grins.
That’s never a good thing.
Through all of this Ireland and Abbott give us a slow-to-pass denial at what they’re seeing and a slower-to-realize that they can’t remove the threat by putting “daddy in the hospital.”
There’s self-blame in all of this, a family that’s grown up without religion and without hugs of comfort that seems to exacerbate the confusion, limit their options and amplify the agony.
“The Dark and the Wicked” tone is established early and maintained throughout. But the film’s general helplessness can be frustrating, and some characters — Xander Berkeley plays a creepy priest, Tom Nowicki an old family farmhand — get short shrift, making their scenes perfunctory.
I had few memories of this film from first reviewing it a couple of years ago. But its shortcomings remain the same, even if my appreciation of the performances has grown.
Few recent horror movies have gotten more out of less that this one, and that all comes down to the cast. Ireland and Abbott give us different takes on how one might respond to evidence of a supernatural menace. Each actor believes what their character is seeing and feeling. They make us believe it, too.
Rating: unrated, graphic violence
Cast: Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott, Jr., Julie Oliver-Touchstone, Xander Berkeley and Tom Nowicki
Credits: Scripted and directed by Bryan Bertino. An RLJE release on Shudder.
Running time: 1:35