An astoundingly dark and moody trailer made THE DARK AND THE WICKED (2020, coming to Shudder) one of my most highly anticipated horror releases. The film delivers a huge amount of dread, tension, and creep with characters who are relatable, ordinary folks, but there was something big missing for me, which in the end made it feel like heavy but empty caloric intake, a solid horror experience but ultimately one that was too nihilistic for me, similar to THE LODGE.
The film opens with an old woman living on a Texas sheep ranch. Her husband lies unconscious in bed breathing pure oxygen. Something is not right at the ranch, something she knows too well. Cut to her estranged adult children Louise and Michael. Louise left the ranch some years earlier and hasn’t kept up much with the family, while Michael has his own family that’s his main focus. Together, they try to support their mother as their father slowly dies, though she’d warned them not to come.
Things sort of go to hell from here on out. A demonic force is at work, and it will not stop until it gets what it wants.
There’s a lot to like about this film. The dark and slightly grainy 70s feel, the thickening atmosphere of dread, the accelerating creep, and the crystalizing stakes–do we stay, and possibly save ourselves, or go, and abandon our kin–are all handled almost perfectly. The characters themselves are great; we don’t learn too much about them, but they come across as real as the folks next door, and we learn plenty about who they are by seeing how they act in a crisis and the choices they make. There’s an interesting message to the film, which is sometimes, evil will do what it wants regardless of human effort, platitudes, or anything else.
For me, this last part is the film’s main flaw, though. The characters’ actions and choices ultimately don’t matter. This robbed the film of a message that wasn’t completely nihilistic and ultimately made its scares heavy on spectacle but light on substance and meaning. Nihilism itself is an interesting message if it’s handled well, but the kind of nihilism that comes from watching people brutalized without any agency or effective moral choices gets old. There was such an easy fix for an approach that was nihilistic instead of sadistic, which was to look at the primary ethical choice facing the characters and reward the “wrong” choice and punish the “right” choice, but the filmmaker didn’t take that path.
As a result, I liked THE DARK AND THE WICKED but in the end didn’t love it. While there is much to love about the film, ultimately its terrific elements didn’t pay off for me in the last act.