By Zoe Kurland.
A true sense of terror hums through the film, though Bertino gives us many clues but few conclusions….”
In an early scene in Bryan Bertino’s The Dark and The Wicked, the Straker siblings, Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbot Jr.) sit on the porch of their childhood home somewhere in rural Texas. They have come to see their dying father (Michael Zagst), but Louise is more concerned about their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone), who has been exhibiting odd, distant behavior in the wake of their father’s illness.
“We should have done something,” Louise says. “Hugged her?”
“Yeah,” replies Michael, “‘cause that would have made everything better, probably.”
Guilt laces the mild laughter that follows. Both siblings know that hugs would be useless in mending their family, which time and separation has fractured beyond repair. From their cold body language, one understands that Michael and Louise have come to say goodbye to their father because they are dutiful, not because they want or need to be there.
When sudden tragedy strikes and Michael and Louise begin to experience nightmarish visions, it’s unclear what haunts them; it could be the devil, sure, but more likely this dark and wicked presence at the center of Bertino’s latest thriller is guilt, a force as insidious (if not more so) than anything supernatural. In one scene, Louise opens the shower curtain to see her father, dead-eyed and sallow, urinating on the bathmat before her. Though this encounter quickly escalates to Exorcist-levels or terror, fit with head-spinning and eye-rolling, the scene begs the question of what one should fear more: mind-altering possession or mind-altering illness? Yes, Louise’s father has become something evil, but the real tragedy seems to be that Louise never even knew him when he was well, leaving her with a shell of a father and a shell of a relationship.
The town priest (Xander Berkley) suggests to Louise and Michael that their evil visions come from the devil, as evidenced by their mother’s diary scribblings and a loose bag of crucifixes—her final hollow grabs at a Christian belief system. Louise and Michael insist that no one in their family believed in God, which underscores the desperation of their mother’s attempts and serves to highlight Bertino’s point that the Strakers’ consistent lack of true belief in anything, whether it be god or family, makes them especially vulnerable to attack.
Production designer Scott Colquitt emphasizes this sense of desolation by crafting the Straker house to look comfortably domestic but oddly impersonal, as though someone went through the motions of making a family home but failed to fill it with an actual family. Empty domesticity seems to be a theme for the Strakers; when a human finger takes the place of a carrot on a cutting board, it becomes clear that the ingredient does not matter as much as the ritual of chopping, making dinner, and placing food on the table, even if the chairs are empty. The home contains only one faded photo of the family; instead, oddities take the place of warmth. Talismans hang from a piece of wire, goats bleat at all hours in the barn, objects move inexplicably out of place. When an ancient wall phone rings, bearing ominous messages from the dead, it seems symbolic of the family’s missed connections, the calls Michael and Louise said they’d make but never did.
Bertino does us a bit of a disservice in that we don’t ever find out too much about the Strakers. I would have liked to understand even a bit of Michael and Louise’s childhood and what motivated them to run so far away. We also know precious little about their current lives, making it hard to understand anyone’s motivation (although it makes the lived-in performances by Ireland and Abbot Jr. all the more impressive, considering they had so little to work with). However, the little we do get is certainly interesting; in one scene, Louise stumbles upon a room full of mannequins dressed in custom gowns her mother made. It is unclear if dressmaking was a vocation or a hobby, and if any of these odd pieces have owners. A tag with Louise’s name sits upon a would-be wedding dress, a white gown with gaudy silver trim. To make a wedding dress for one’s estranged daughter is equal parts aspirational and clueless, and pain flashes across Louise’s face, as if she has come upon some relic of lost hope, a future with her mother she can never have.
Despite the true sense of terror humming through the film, the final scene offers a slapdash ending that fails to build on what’s come before. Bertino gives us many clues but few conclusions, ensuring that we too feel a palpable sense of isolation. Ultimately, the Strakers remain as inscrutable to us as they are to each other.
Zoe Kurland is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She holds a BA in English from Columbia University. Her writing appears in Bright Lights Film Journal, COUNTERCLOCK Journal, The Nonconformist, and more.