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Review: Something malevolent is growing on the family farm in ‘The Dark and the Wicked’

Family ties: Michael Abbott Jr. and Marin Ireland turn in strong performances in "The Dark and the Wicked."
(RLJE Films / Shudder)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

“The Dark and the Wicked” doesn’t follow the usual horror-movie rules. And that’s a good thing.

There’s no literal or karmic explanation for why an otherworldly force is terrorizing a Texas family; it just is. That randomness keeps the film from being predictable. There’s no playbook or magic bullet or anything like that. Instead, we’re focused on the impossible situation in which grown brother and sister Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Louise (Marin Ireland) find themselves on returning to their family farm: Their elderly father is dying; their elderly mother seems to be losing her mind; with no other help available and the father too ill to move to a hospital, they’re essentially trapped on this remote farm even though they sense something malevolent rising.

“Dark” is much more effective when it’s being atmospherically creepy than on the occasions it resorts to jump scares. The warm-toned cinematography by Tristan Nyby pairs with Scott Colquitt’s detailed production design to create a textured, rustic setting for this American gothic horror tale. The overbearing sound design, however, goes from deftly filling out the environment to overpowering the images. While writer-director Bryan Bertino faithfully keeps us in the rural Texas world of the film, he does allow a few direct visual quotes of F. W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” — hey, live a little.

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Grown siblings Michael and Louise (Michael Abbott Jr. and Marin Ireland) return to their family farm to find something malevolent growing there in “The Dark and the Wicked.”

The film’s strongest asset is its collection of performances, especially by leads Ireland and Abbott. Their sibling relationship is believable, which goes a long way toward establishing the movie’s reality. There are shades of guilt and shared backstory the skilled actors express mostly nonverbally. Both are stage vets, and their depth of craft serves them well. In a situation from which most of us would flee, we buy that Ireland’s Louise simply can’t abandon her dying father. Abbott delivers an authentic, settled performance, fresh off his standout guest appearance in the season premiere of TV’s “Fear the Walking Dead.” It’s a standard of acting unusual for the genre, and it increases the impact when the characters feel something is really wrong, or are driven to extremes.

That “The Dark and the Wicked” doesn’t strictly adhere to the genre or really any firmly established set of rules, makes it what they call in baseball “effectively wild.” It isn’t exactly terrifying, but is well-acted and sinister enough to rise (levitate ominously?) above the pack.

'The Dark and the Wicked'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 6, Vineland Drive-in, City of Industry, and in limited release where theaters are open; also available on VOD and digital

Updates

6:34 a.m. Nov. 19, 2020: COVID-19 safety language updated.


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