Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, February 7, 2021
“There’s nothing worse than a soul left alone in the end.”
Texas filmmaker Bryan Bertino wrote the screenplay for The Strangers, a movie that made us feel unsafe in our own homes. In The Dark and the Wicked, Bertino gets downright metaphysical, worrying us about the state of our immortal souls.
The setting is a blighted patch of Texas prairie, but Bertino grazes the same bleak spiritual tundra as Ingmar Bergman, suggesting that a human soul bereft of love is vulnerable to attack by dark forces.
Somewhere in a particularly lonesome part of Texas, an old man (Michael Zagst) lays dying in his bed, wheezing out air supplied by an oxygen tube. A nurse (Lynn Andrews) sits nearby knitting and observing his tortured breathing. The old man’s wife (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) chops vegetables in the kitchen staring vacantly out a window at the grim landscape of the family farm. Their two children, Louise (Marin Ireland), and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr), now grown, have returned to lend comfort to Mother and watch over their fading papa.
How did everything go so wrong? And how are they getting worse? The Dark and the Wicked never says for sure. Instead, we are left with symptoms pointing to a malady beyond the reach of medicine.
“You shouldn’t have come,” Mother hisses at her offspring.
With wolves howling in the distance (and getting closer all the time), there is no comfort or joy in the family reunion. Bertino illustrates this through dispassionate editing choices, settling on objects or desolate scenery for every shot with a person in it, as if the presence of human beings means nothing in this dreary place. But there is a growing menace in the household that can’t be ignored. Louise sees her comatose father in the shower, and Michael spies his mother floating in the air through a window.
It falls to the sympathetic nurse to try and articulate all the bad mojo.
“I think there are things in this world, horrible things, wicked. And they come for whoever they want,” she cautions Michael, explaining that a soul needs love to keep it safe. “I can smell the fear in y’all. I can feel it in this house.” she murmurs.
As previously stated, love, warmth, and comfort are in short supply around these parts. Louise and Michael are both clearly guilt-ridden about ignoring their parents for so long, and the guilt gets snowballed into a bad situation. Rather than delve into the specifics of sin, The Dark and the Wicked drops clues, frightful images, and ghostly visitors that haunt the siblings till it becomes unbearable.
Save your pity for the one left alone.