Bryan Bertino

Fantasia Review: The Dark and the Wicked

On a secluded goat farm, a man is slowly dying. After being under the care of his wife, it seems as though he is running out of time. When his two adult children come to say their goodbyes, they become plagued with waking nightmares as something evil comes for them all.

Fantasia International Film Festival brings audiences yet another hit by writer and director Bryan Bertino (The Monster, The Strangers). The Dark and the Wicked tells a terrifying tale of something evil targeting a family. The film begins by introducing us to a woman caring for her ailing husband. It’s immediately clear something isn’t quite right. When her two adult children arrive to pay their respects before their father passes, the evil quickly becomes more active. Bertino is great and constantly implies the evil entity is lurking in the shadows, making for a terrifying movie-watching experience. He plays with the fear of the unknown as much as the fear of evil and death. The audience can’t trust their own eyes and it’s never obvious what is real and what is a sinister hallucination.

Bertino also excels at not only having traditional frights in his film, but also having complex family dynamics. In The Dark and the Wicked, there is immediate and obvious strain among the family members. The mother makes it known she didn’t want her children to come. Both the son and the daughter obviously haven’t been home in a while. There is also tension between the siblings. Every bit of family drama and deep-rooted issue boil over as the evil entity manipulates their emotions. It gets to the point where the family members can’t trust their own eyes and are led to the brink of insanity.

The Dark and the Wicked has a wonderful cast who give emotionally charged performances. Marin Ireland (The Umbrella Academy, Piercing) plays the daughter, Louise. Ireland’s performance is absolutely brilliant. There is clearly a lot of emotional strife within her family relationships, but a sense of duty and guilt drive Louise to stick around, even when it’s clear she’s in danger. Michael Abbott Jr. (Loving, Mud) plays Louise’s brother, Michael. It’s obvious that Michael feels a similar sense of duty, but his loyalties are pulled in two different directions because of his wife and kids. Abbott is great at conveying how his practical nature and love of his family make it more difficult for him to accept what’s happening on the farm. Both Ireland and Abbott act very well together, embodying that often times tumultuous relationship between siblings.

Bertino films are known for being very minimal when it comes to effects, yet they still have great visuals. Luckily, The Dark and the Wicked is no different in that regard. The stunning cinematography sets the tone. It showcases the beautiful sets while also drawing your eye to the things that don’t belong. The evil entity after this family never shows its true face. As a result, most of the more frightening scenes rely heavily on barely seen things in the shadows. The entity also plays with the minds of the characters and audience by constantly making it unclear what is real and what is a waking nightmare. It all results in terrifying look and feel sending chills down your spine.

The Dark and the Wicked is yet another achievement by Bertino that balances supernatural terror with character-driven drama. There are many truly frightening moments and the plot is compelling from start to finish. Between the subtly haunting visuals and the emotional performances from the entire cast, it’s impossible to deny the success of this film. It is the kind of film that is a punch to the gut, but in the best way possible. I have no doubt this will be on many “best of the year” lists for 2020.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

The Monster

A mother and her young daughter have a tumultuous relationship. The mother is a neglectful alcoholic, and the daughter essentially has to take care of her mother. They come to the decision that the daughter should go stay with her dad for a while. On the drive there they get into a car accident. They are stranded on a lonely road in the middle of the woods, in the dark and rain. It soon becomes clear that there is something hunting them from the woods. The mother and daughter will have to rely on each other in order to survive the monster in the darkness.

Writer/director Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) knows how to create a character-driven horror film. Yes, there is a terrifying monster trying to kill the characters in the story, but the real focus is the relationship between the mother and daughter. The mother, Kathy, is a raging alcoholic who can’t seem to get it together. This leaves the very young daughter, Lizzy, to not only care for herself, but also care for her train wreck of a mother. There relationship is very volatile and typically consists of screaming matches, and sometimes even violence. We learn much about how they ended up on the road, hating each other, through a series of flashbacks from both the mother’s and daughter’s point of view. When the two are thrown into survival mode as they fight for their lives against a dangerous monster,  it forces them to not only face the danger at hand, but their relationship as well.

While I am technically a film critic, sometimes I get annoyed with film critics because they tend to read too much into films. I saw The Monster as part of the International Horror and Scifi Film Festival’s Horror Showcase. After the film there was a discussion about what people thought and many of the viewers were also film critics. While I agree with many of the people there that believe the monster was a physical embodiment (or a metaphor) for the alcoholism and addiction that is tearing the mother and daughter apart the other film critics lost me when they said things like the monster didn’t exist at all or other out-there theories. Yes, the monster was a physical representation of what the family was going through, but it was also simply a monster. The two things are not mutually exclusive in horror films.

The monster itself was very well done. The filmmakers chose to go the route of practical effects, which was necessary in a film like this that is so grounded in emotions. The creature design was also very well done. The face was frightening and vicious. There were a few flaws. It was very clear in many scenes where you see the full body of the monster that you can clearly tell it is a man in a monster suite. Despite that, I still appreciate that they chose this over CGI. The only other issues I had with the monster had more to do with inconsistencies in the story. It appears that when light is shined in the monster’s face, it runs off. Whether it is scared of the light or the light hurts it, we never know. My issue is that, while it is afraid of the light from a flashlight and flame, it doesn’t seem to be bothered much by street lights or headlights. Possible it is only effected by light shined directly in it’s eyes, but if that was the case it should have been made more clear.

When a story takes places primarily in the dark, it is common for a lot to be lost in the darkness. This is not the case for The Monster. The cinematography is stunning. They did an amazing job of making sure things can be seen clearly throughout the film no matter how dark it was. There was also a lot of play with light and darkness that brought a lot of beauty to the scenes. One scene specifically stands out in my mind after watching the film. Kathy gets out of the car to investigate something and she is standing in the light of the headlights, the forest illuminated behind her. It seems like she should be safe in the light, but the deeper into the forest you look the darker it gets. It is clear that there is danger nearby. The shot was so simple yet something about it is absolutely gorgeous.

The two leads in this film gave absolutely marvelous performances. Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks, What If) blew me away as the drunken mother, Kathy. Kazan portrayed Kathy’s internal struggle of wanting to be a good mother while also having no control over her addiction. This was a role I wouldn’t have thought Kazan to be in, but now I can’t imagine it with anyone else. Ella Ballentine (The Captive, Standoff) was quite a surprise as the daughter, Lizzy. I had never seen her in a film before, and she had such a strong presence on the screen. Ballentine was so powerful because she is portrayed in most of the film as the “adult” because she has to take care of her alcoholic mother. She then goes from being strong and independent to a scared little girl when she realizes monsters are real. The two actresses together made the perfect duo.

What makes The Monster such a masterful film is that it throws people who don’t want to be around each other into a terrifying situation where they have to rely on each other to survive. It is something that Bertino also did in The Strangers. While there are horrifying events happening around them, the true focus of the film is the relationship between the mother and daughter. Because of this, I am able to look past the couple flaws involving the monster and see the masterpiece this film truly is. Horror and non-horror fans alike will appreciate this film and likely relate to the relationships that we as the audience witness.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10