It’s no secret that 2020 has been a bad year for movies. Theaters were closed for several months, and even though they’ve begun to reopen in many places, they still don’t have too many new releases to show. Instead, audiences have had to rely mainly on streaming services and video on demand (VOD) for new content. Thankfully, those platforms have given us some real gems like Relic and Vampires vs. The Bronx. Now we can add another movie to that list: The Dark and the Wicked.
The Dark and the Wicked premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival this past summer, and it was released to the general public through VOD on November 6. It’s a supernatural horror movie written and directed by Bryan Bertino, and it stars Marin Ireland and Michael Abbot, Jr. The film follows a brother and sister who go visit their aging mother and dying father, and they soon realize that they’re being stalked by a malevolent supernatural force.
Right from the first few shots of this movie, you can tell that it’s going to be all about the atmosphere. It has such a spine-chilling ambiance dripping from just about every scene that I almost thought this was an A24 film. Even when the characters are performing mundane tasks like cleaning a sink or chopping up some vegetables, the movie just feels creepy. There’s a cloud of evil hanging over the entire story like a dense fog, and it doesn’t let up until about ten minutes after the film is over.
Even the scares are very atmospheric. While there are a few jump scares, this movie relies more on simple but unsettling imagery than on things jumping out at you. For example, there are a few times when you see a ghost just standing in one spot or slowly walking towards a character, and those moments have an unnerving quality that’s way more effective than merely being startled.
But more than anything else, the most captivating thing about the film is its unrelenting pessimism. Bryan Bertino’s directorial debut was The Strangers, and The Dark and the Wicked basically takes that same template and transposes it from home invasion to demonic horror. His first movie was a deep dive into the depths of human evil, and this one is a similar exploration of demonic evil.
For example, just as the killers in The Strangers toy with their victims before finally killing them, so too does the evil force in this film play around with the human characters seemingly at will. There don’t appear to be any rules to what it can do, so it feels like the demon is just messing with them until it gets bored. Sometimes it takes a human form, other times it forces people to harm themselves without actually appearing to them, and still other times it appears to people and makes them hurt themselves. It does whatever it wants whenever it wants, and there’s nothing anybody can do to stop it.
That helplessness in the face of overwhelming evil is really the heart of the movie. Nobody is safe from the demon haunting this poor family, and everything about the film, including the characters, the plot, and even the cinematography, seems intended to convey that central idea. It’s brutally pessimistic, and that’s what makes it so great.
In fact, it’s so gloomy that I think the best way to explain it is to contrast it with Rob Zombie’s movies. I know that’s a really strange comparison to make, but hear me out. Rob Zombie likes to make his villains the stars of his movies, and by doing so, he glorifies evil and makes it seem cool. The Dark and the Wicked, on the other hand, does no such thing. Nothing in this movie glorifies evil in any way. Instead, it unmasks evil and shows that it’s not something to be celebrated or emulated, and when the credits begin to roll, you’ll want nothing to do with it.
For me, that kind of horror is much more appealing than Rob Zombie’s “evil is cool” vibe. It captures a profound truth about the world we live in, so it goes beyond mere entertainment. It makes us think about good and evil, and by showing us the true face of evil, it paradoxically shows us why we should choose to be good instead. That’s one of my favorite things to see in horror, and The Dark and the Wicked does it just about perfectly. Its brutal pessimism pulls back the curtain and shows what evil really looks like, and that makes you want to run as far away from it as possible.
That bleak portrayal of evil got under my skin in a way that only a very select few films ever have, and in my book, that alone makes it one of the best horror movies of 2020. In fact, it might even be the best of the year. I still need to think about it some more to figure out exactly where I would put it on my list, but it’s at least in the top three or four. Wherever it ends up, though, one thing is clear: The Dark and the Wicked is another phenomenal film from Bryan Bertino, and if you’re a fan of horror that takes an unflinching look at the true nature of evil, you do not want to miss this absolute gem.