Everyone has been wondering for years what would finally supplant zombies as the predominant motif in modern horror, and I am starting to wonder if we’re seeing evidence of it now in cinema. This year has seen an uptick in geriatric horror – films in which aging and end-of-life events play a crucial role.
We saw it in “Relic,” which opens with the disappearance of Edna (Robyn Nevin), an elderly woman living alone in a large country house surrounded by woods. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) are summoned to the estate when a neighbor notices Edna’s absence. The two arrive at the sprawling mansion — which appears to be suffering from prolonged neglect — and, in searching for clues to what may have happened to the woman, they discover evidence that suggests she may be suffering from dementia.
We also saw it in “Amulet,” a film that follows Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), an ex-soldier who has immigrated to London. He finds shelter in a rundown rowhouse occupied by Magda (Carla Juri), a woman caring for her elderly, dying mother who is confined to an attic room.
The two films tap into our latent anxiety about growing old and developing chronic health issues. It’s not so much that these films deal with death; instead, they shine a spotlight on the grim process of dying and the associated suffering and distress we face as we gradually lose our dignity and independence to terminal illness. How “Relic” and “Amulet” explore those subjects and how they exploit those fears are quite different, but the foundation is analogous.
“As the Baby Boom generation grays, representations of elderly characters on screen are increasing, and are receiving significant attention in the scholarly literature that considers them,” writes Cynthia J. Miller and A. Bowdoin Van Ripper in the introduction to their book “Elder Horror: Essays on Film’s Frightening Images of Aging.” The authors continue: “Cinematic depictions of aging as a degenerative process, along with othering, marginalization, and victimization of the elderly, and fears tied to the finality of death have all been increasingly highlighted and analyzed as we attempt to sort out the complex social, psychological, economic and emotional consequences of – and responses to – growing old.”
In horror, Miller and Van Ripper explain that our fears of growing old and being old take on fantastic porportions.
“Here, the threats of aging are made manifest and bloody – by the eccentric harbinger of doom, the crone who seeks to restore her vitality, the pensioners who bargain with the supernatural to cheat death, and ancestors who return from the grave to curse the living …”
Director Bryan Bertino is playing in the same sandbox with his film “The Dark and the Wicked.” The film premiered at the Fantasia International Film Festival Aug. 28. It was released via video on demand Nov. 6 by RLJE Films and can be rented through Amazon Prime and Fandango Now.
In the film, Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.), brother and sister, return home to their family’s farm. Their terminally ill father (Michael Zagst) is facing his final days in his bed, watched over by a palliative care nurse during the day and by his wife (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) at night. Shortly after their arrival, Louise and Michael realize their mother, too, is unwell. They initially blame her physical dishevelment and mental deterioration on exhaustion and overwhelming grief. It doesn’t take long to discover just how bad things have gotten on the farmstead.
What follows is a brutal, slow burn of a film that subjects viewers to one of the most traumatizing and exasperating shared experiences we face: watching a loved one slowly die. For anyone who has taken that bedside seat as a part-time or full-time caretaker to a parent in hospice care, “The Dark and the Wicked” will dredge up painful memories. That atmosphere of sorrow and helplessness, however, is in fact window dressing for dark, supernatural forces at play. The family is besieged by some malevolent entity that seems determined to harvest the soul of the dying man. Ironically, both Louise and Michael – like their parents – are atheists, so when it is suggested that it is the devil preying upon their minds they refuse to accept it.
As evidence continues to mount, though, they are forced to admit to themselves that some power beyond their understanding is threating their sanity and their lives.
“We are all going to experience, or have experienced, the death of our parents,” the producers of the film state in the production notes. “For many, being intimate with the actual dying process often creates uncomfortable and horrific situations. In addition, death tends to bring families in close proximity, yet doesn’t necessarily create actual closeness. We wanted to explore a side of this very universal experience that is not often depicted.”
The setup is magnificent. It’s dark and brooding with a heavy American gothic accent. The house feels ancient, with every door creaking and every floorboard squeaking. The sound editing in “The Dark and the Wicked” is fantastic, helping Bertino construct a compelling nightmare: from the bleating of the goats and the howling of the wolves to the chop-chop-chopping as the mother slices a carrot on the kitchen counter and the viewer awaits the inevitable change in tone that indicates the knife fell upon something meatier than a vegetable.
Though it focuses more on establishing an eerie tone and a gradual descent into the uncanny, the film doesn’t skimp on gore. Viewers will find several extremely graphic examples of body horror scattered throughout the film. There are a handful of nods to various genre tropes, as well, and more than a few specific visual cues that evoke “The Amityville Horror.”
Unfortunately, “The Dark and the Wicked” fizzles in the third act. Expectations are not met. Conflicts are not adequately resolved. Various characters are added to the growing body count without reason. Too many questions ultimately go unanswered.
Ireland and Zagst deliver stellar performances. Louise and Michael, drowning in grief and regret, are forced to contend with an unknowable and unstoppable hostile force. The characters evolve, moving from denial to acceptance to understanding. But their growth does not seem to be sufficient. Their fate seems to be predetermined and unchangeable. The climax, though shocking, is pointless theatrics and it diminishes all of the story’s serious dramatic elements.
Dealing with themes ranging from the process of dying and grief to family discord and abandonment, “The Dark and the Wicked” is claustrophobic and creepy. Hauntingly tragic and brutally nihilistic, Bertino’s ambiguity derails an otherwise compelling supernatural fable steeped in palpable dread and misery.