On February 25, 2021, Bryan Bertino's latest horror movie, The Dark and the Wicked was made available on the streaming platform, Shudder. The film, which originally debuted at the Fantasia International Film Festival on August 28, 2020, stars Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. as siblings Louise and Michael Straker, who convene on a remote Texas farm to care for their dying father. Estranged from their mother who'd been caring for her ailing husband with the help of a nurse (Lynn Andrews) for quite some time, the siblings quickly learn that it's not only their dad who's slipping away here.
Their mom (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) is behaving strangely, and before Louise and Michael can make heads or tails of what's at foot, the situation gets away from them in a terrifyingly unexpected way. Something sinister has rooted on the farm they once called home, and as the dark nights roll by, they're unable to trust even their own eyes and ears, let alone the outside forces relentlessly attacking their sanity, and possibly even their souls.
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Written and directed by Bertino, who has cemented himself as a force within the horror genre with classics such as his 2008 debut The Strangers, as well as The Monster, and The Blackcoat's Daughter, The Dark and the Wicked is true to form. Bertino uses his expert ability to instill a creeping dread into every scene to step away from traditional horror tropes, and present a truly scary journey through the haunted broken psyches of a crumbling family.
Michael Abbott Jr., who you may recognize from previous roles in Fear the Walking Dead, and The Death of Dick Long, gives a performance in The Dark and the Wicked that will not be easily forgotten. Especially as you're trying to go to sleep at night. His dialogue delivery drips with an easy, southern sadness, and even when not speaking, his eyes are the windows of the doomed farm he stomps around on. A solid figure of reason and stability to his mom, dad, and sister, he's unable to hold the pieces together and when it all slips out of his grip, the audience feels it. Hard.
We spoke with him on the phone about his role in the film, his experience working with Bertino, and how he can be so good at horror even though he claims to not be a huge fan of it.
TLU: You've mentioned in interviews elsewhere that horror is a genre you don't particularly lean into because it makes you uncomfortable. Having watched The Dark and the Wicked, your role in the film is one of the most anti-comfort roles I've seen in years. As an actor, how are you able to plunge into the darkest depths of mood and subject matter without it sticking to you?
MAJ: If you're true to the script, and if you're living truthfully and honestly within the circumstances that have been laid out by your writer, then the work is halfway done. I think one of the things that drew me to Bryan's script in the first place was, well, I think one of the reasons, aside from being scared of them, why horror has never really drawn me in was because I've never felt connected to the characters. I've always kinda felt like they were a little cartoonish, or that they're so far removed from who I am that I was never able to feel any type of connection, or feel bad for them that they're having their heads chopped off, or whatever the case may be.
This is a family drama, at the center of it. And these were characters that I felt an audience could look at and see themselves in, and find a connection to, and feel bad for. And I think that's what you want in storytelling. You want your audience to be compelled by the experiences your characters are living through, and have some empathy for you. If your audience doesn't care for you, then they're less likely to take a journey and actually give a shit about where your arc is leading your character.
The fact that these characters are dealing with real life issues like isolation, loss, grief, those were the things that really drew me in. And then today, in March of 2021, I think this film speaks even moreso to those circumstances because we're in the middle of a global pandemic, where I think a lot of us are realizing how many things we took for granted before this. And I think one of the major things we're all gonna look back on is how we took our families for granted, and the time we had with our families. I think it's gonna make people uncomfortable. And I think there's probably people who shouldn't see this movie, at least for awhile, depending on how their pandemic experience has been for them.
There's a creeping nuanced dread that builds from scene one of this film, and it really harkens back to Bryan Bertino's debut, The Strangers. In what ways were you directed in scenes so that the scares landed more emotionally, rather than falling back on the standard horror jump scares and other tropes of that nature?
I think it was really a testament to Bryan's communication with Marin and I. We spent most of our time, in terms of the two or three days of pre-production we were able to have face to face, talking about the relationships of this family. And we were able to shoot on Bryan's family farm, where he'd written the script, so it was already a very personal story for him, because it was a story that he had sat with for so long. So he knew exactly what he wanted to see on the screen and, in the end, it saved us a lot of time because he wasn't trying to find it in the moment, he knew exactly what he wanted. And it saved us enough time that Bryan was able to come to us and be like "okay, now I've got what I want, and you guys can get a few takes and play around with it and explore and see what you find." And those are the moments, as an actor, that you kind of live for, because that's when your training comes in. And for him to trust us enough to kind of play with his material, you come across a lot of happy accidents in those moments. And the fact that we were in the middle of nowhere dark Texas, in the middle of a dark farm, so much of the work had already been done for us as actors because we were actually experiencing those elements as Michael and Louise were.
I don't know if you're familiar with the website Does the Dog Die, but it allows you to type in the name of a movie to see what kinds of animals, and how many, die on screen. Well, when you plug in The Dark and the Wicked, it lights up. Why do you think animal deaths are so often used as methods of horror?
I think it's an emotional trigger for your audience. That's as close as we can come without killing a field of babies. I think if we were killing babies in a field, production would immediately shut down and no one would ever see the movie. So it's like, what's just a little removed from a baby? It's our pets.
I read that your final day of shooting resulted in you having to get knee surgery. Do you think this farm was cursed?
It was my last day on set. Last scene. Last take. It was the middle of the night, like three or four in the morning, and Bryan was kind of out in the yard, about fifteen feet back from the porch of the farm, and I saw him waving me back. So I got up from where I was sitting and stepped down a whole foot and a half off the side of the porch to walk around and talk to him, and when I did, it felt like a rubber band was twisting in my knee. So I went over and talked to him, and then by the time we finished the scene my left knee was the size of a basketball. So that was my wrap. They literally picked me up, carried me to a pickup truck, and drove me to an emergency room. I had an MRI and it turned out I had torn my meniscus. I flew back to New York the next day and had emergency surgery. So maybe the farm was cursed. Now that you bring it up.
When was the last time you watched a movie that was so scary, you were unable to finish it?
I remember exactly what it was. I was in the eighth grade, and I remember someone coming to spend the night at my house, and bringing a VHS tape of Faces of Death. I remember a scene of a skull being crushed and it was probably 9:30 at night, so super late for me, and I remember going to my mother and saying so and so has to go home. And I didn't talk to that guy for a long time.
The Dark and the Wicked is streaming now on Shudder. Look for Michael Abbott Jr. in the upcoming film, Hell House, which is currently in pre-production.