Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 8, 2020)
With a title like The Dark and the Wicked, it seems unlikely that this 2020 film will offer anything other than a grim tale. To the surprise of no one, the movie indeed offers a somber horror effort.
Set on a farm in a remote rural Texas location, a father (Michael Zagst) gradually nears death. To prepare for his imminent demise, his wife (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) calls their adult children Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) home.
The kids find their mother stuck in a sense of terrible grief, but they soon find out that more concerns lie underneath this attitude. The longer they stay in their old home, the more Louise and Michael find themselves plagued with traumatic concerns.
When we first met Bryan Bertino, he functioned as the The Strangers, a low-budget horror flick that did pretty well for itself given its insubstantial price tag. Though it cost a mere $9 million, it brought in a decent $80 million worldwide, enough to lead to the less successful 2018 follow-up The Strangers: Prey At Night.
While Bertino wrote that sequel, he didn’t direct it. He followed the 2008 Strangers with 2014’s Mockingbird, a direct-to-video release, and then 2016’s The Monster, another horror flick that enjoyed virtually no theatrical exhibition.
Wicked also failed to find a home on movie screens, though at least the global COVID-19 pandemic could act as a factor there. Still, given the fact Bertino’s last two movies existed mainly on video, I can’t claim to believe this one would’ve gotten a different fate.
I never saw Mockingbird, but I viewed Bertino’s other two flicks, and I can’t claim either impressed me. That said, at least Monster worked better than the mostly poor Strangers, so I thought perhaps his meant Bertino’s filmmaking skills would improve over time.
In theory, that means Wicked should fare even better than the inconsistent Monster. Alas, that doesn’t prove accurate, as Wicked becomes a lackluster effort at best.
Like both of those earlier movies, Wicked proceeds at a gradual pace – a really gradual pace, as what little plot we find moves in a glacial manner. In truth, the film comes without much of a real narrative, as it focuses more on the basic concept of the gloom that surrounds the family.
Eventually, the movie attempts to latch onto a more concrete sense of story, but one should never expect a whole lot in that domain. Instead, the flick prefers to concentrate on its foreboding tone and “slow descent into madness” theme.
That could work, but not as depicted by Bertino. Part of the problem stems from his attempts to paint a methodical push into terror with more overt scares right off the bat.
In a more competent film, the characters and situations would offer at least some semblance of normalcy at the start. Open the movie with a neutral position and then show the collapse into insanity from there.
Instead, Wicked launches with the Mother already pretty far around the bend, and neither Louise nor Michael seem all that stable either. These choices give the movie little wiggle room, so rather than become enveloped in the developing terror, we feel stuck in a rut.
Wicked also telegraphs potential scares right off the bat, partly due to Tom Schrader’s one-note score. As with the gloomy photography and perpetually haunted characters, the music seems ominous and foreboding from Minute One, and this also leaves the movie no room to get creepier. It goes for the eerie gusto right off the bat, and that limits its potential development.
All of this often feels like windowdressing to obscure the essential emptiness at the film’s heart. With thin characters and little real narrative thrust, the movie comes with dark atmosphere and not much more.
Even at 95 minutes, that can make Wicked a tough slog. Without much substance or real terror, the film turns into a sluggish journey to nowhere.