I’ve seen dozens of “haunted house” movies–maybe hundreds. You probably have as well. But with The Dark and The Wicked, Bryan Bertino (The Strangers, The Monster) offers up what is without a doubt the meanest take on the sub genre that I’ve ever seen. It’s a cold-blooded classic that carries an unrivaled intensity.

Similar to 2008’s The Strangers, Bertino’s latest is a masterclass in atmosphere. Cinematographer Tristan Nyby captures the real-life Bertino family farm in a manner which can only be described by words like “unavailing” or “hopeless”. It lends a certain texture to the film that you can almost smell—as if the entire location is in the same, dire scenario as the man that lies in bed dying before his family.

“A cold-blooded classic that carries an unrivaled intensity.”

We follow Louise and Michael, two siblings who return to their childhood home to support their mother as she tends to their dying father. But instead of welcoming her children back into the family home with open arms, she’s enraged by their presence—and it doesn’t take long for us to understand why. This small ranch has become the home for a wayward spirit that is very dark… and very wicked. Bertino plays with tropes that we’ve come to expect from ghost/demon flicks. Sliding furniture, creeped out animals, and other somewhat generic “spooky” things set the stage for what could have been just another formulaic “haunted house” flick, but this is no ordinary haunting. The Dark and The Wicked features the most aggressive and mean-spirited “presence” that I can recall seeing on film. It’s anything but generic, and it’s absolutely terrifying.

Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. are fantastic as Louise and Michael. It’s clear that this isn’t the most tight-knit family as they exchange detached pleasantries on the front porch. It’s the kind of conversation that exist for little more than killing time in an undesirable situation, and Ireland and Abbott sell it perfectly. And once the proverbial shit starts to hit the fan, they’re more than up for the challenge. The same can be said for Julie Oliver-Touchstone and Michael Zagst as the mother and father. They get far less screen time, but they shine when given the opportunity.

“Every frame is intentional. Every sound effect is terrifying. The Dark and the Wicked is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen.”

Beyond the script itself, which is very good, The Dark and The Wicked’s biggest strength may lie in its timing. This is a genuinely scary film and I believe that timing is the secret ingredient that makes it so successful. It possesses an uncanny ability to catch its audience off guard–and it does. It’s not often that I find myself letting out audible squeals or yells, and that’s exactly what happened here. Save for a couple of digitally-assisted shots (which arguably aren’t essential enough to warrant their existence), The Dark and The Wicked pitches a near-perfect game when it comes to extracting fear from the viewer.

Bryan Bertino set the world on fire with The Strangers in 2008, but subsequent films like Mockingbird and The Monster, didn’t capture audiences in quite the same way. With The Dark and The Wicked, Bertino taps into what made The Strangers so special and proves that he’s truly a contemporary master of horror. It’s understated and downright evil. Every frame is intentional. Every sound effect is terrifying. The Dark and the Wicked is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. Period.

The Dark and The Wicked screened at the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.