“Do you smell him?,” a little girl whispers in Bryan Bertino’s ingenious chiller “The Dark and the Wicked,” and the whole movie seems to freeze. As he showed in his masterly 2008 debut, “The Strangers,” Bertino understands the power in simplicity and the horror in a hush. Not for him a screeching soundtrack and screaming ghouls; instead, he subtly coaxes terror from familiar situations and everyday objects. A self-directed light switch here, an errant vegetable knife there — in his films, even our own mirror image can turn traitorous.
The setting is an isolated sheep farm in rural Texas, where a comatose patriarch lies gasping his last. Yet his estranged adult children, Louise (a riveting Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.), returning to say goodbye, are more concerned about their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone). Her disturbing diary entries and collection of crucifixes — the iconography of a religion she doesn’t believe in — evidence her belief that an evil entity is trying to harm her husband. It’s not long before the siblings begin to share her fears.
Ambiguous and allusive, “The Dark and the Wicked” feels saturated in helpless misery and nerve-clanging dread. Electric jump-scares and bursts of violence are all the more shocking for their brevity, while sidelong, slightly elevated camera angles suggest the gaze of a lurking, malevolent presence.
Pitiless in its intent, and hopeless in its sense of sorrowful dereliction, “The Dark and the Wicked” fully earns its horrifically distressing final scenes. Written and filmed on the director’s family farm, it depicts a shiveringly bleak rural homeland, abandoned to faith and neglected by its young — who learn too late they’ve been gone too long.
The Dark and the Wicked
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on iTunes, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.