The film industry has been in stasis for the past year but one genre has unexpectedly thrived: horror. A resurgent drive-in culture in the US has seen low-budget chillers like The Rental and Relic achieve unexpected box-office success, while in the UK the cheap and decidedly non-cheerful Host capitalised on the rise of Zoom call culture by turning an online seance into a nightmare.
You can find the creepy Host exclusively on Shudder, the dedicated streaming service for horror-heads that offers a free seven-day trial before charging £4 a month. This week the channel adds another deeply upsetting nerve-jangler to its library in the form of The Dark and the Wicked, a demonic rural horror that is all the more effective for playing things extremely straight.
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Writer/director Bryan Bertino previously made The Strangers with Liv Tyler in 2008, a home invasion nightmare that ratcheted up almost unbearable levels of tension and menace.
The Dark and the Wicked feels a lot less Hollywood – set on a remote farm, it stars lesser-known faces Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr as tetchy grown-up siblings returning home to care for their parents – but the hardscrabble setting and taciturn family dynamic give it an extremely grounded feel.
With their father essentially in a waking coma and their mother locked into her own weird rituals there is a distinct feeling that something is off: the big skies, creaky barns and lonely fields seem to have ushered in some unwelcome presence. When character actor Xander Berkeley – from 24, The Walking Dead and a million other TV shows – turns up as a drawling, shabby priest you just know things are about to get even worse.
Inner demons begin to manifest themselves in the strangest of ways, and what should be a welcoming homestead becomes a place under psychic siege.
As an unsettling mood piece, The Dark and the Wicked works incredibly well, and it tackles some of the usual horror movie complaints – when faced with some bizarre but clearly horrible situation, why don’t the characters just get the hell out of there? – head on.
The unvarnished feel does make it rather a tough watch, especially as there are very few leavening moments in its spiralling story. But part of the appeal of horror movies is the feeling of experiencing something grim at a relatively safe remove.
Subscribing to an all-horror streaming channel in the middle of a pandemic might seem counter-intuitive but with mature, thoughtful efforts like The Dark and the Wicked, Shudder offers some welcome catharsis.
The Dark and the Wicked Available on Shudder (shudder.com) from February 25