While The Dark and the Wicked is Bryan Bertino’s fourth directorial effort, he is still best known for his debut, the home invasion thriller The Strangers. In its tense and creepy opening, his latest looks like Bertino might be heading back into that home invasion territory. However, this claustrophobic horror tale has an entirely more supernatural bent.

Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) are two siblings who return to their parents’ secluded Texas farm to help their elderly mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) take care of their dying father (Michael Zagst). Not that their presence is particularly welcomed, as the mother continually tells them they “shouldn’t have come,” in that ominous yet inexplicable way that horror characters often do. Things slowly become more apparent as we witness the mum’s dark visions and waking nightmares.

If you come into this looking for explanations though, you will be sorely disappointed. While its solemn tone and heavy atmosphere may give the film a passing resemblance to recent ‘elevated’ horror hits such as Relic or The Wind (which also shares a similarly isolated setting), there is little in the way of grand metaphor or social commentary. No, this flick is purely engineered to scare. The closest we get to an explanation for the supernatural goings-on is when the father’s nurse says: “I think there are things in this world, horrible things… wicked, and they come for whoever they want.”

Not that every horror needs to come with a message. Sometimes you just want a good scare. And Bertino certainly knows how to deliver that. He is a master of manipulating dead space, filling each frame with dread as if something could jump out at any moment. The viewer is left constantly on their toes as there is suddenly a face in the darkness or a figure in a previously empty hallway. None of these is an original scare tactic, but each is employed well.

Same goes for the jumps themselves. You may have watched many jumps just like them, but they are not signposted in the formulaic “quiet… quiet… loud” way of more mainstream supernatural fare. This is partly down to the tension created by Bertino. However, it is undoubtedly helped by Tom Schaeder’s doomily unsettling score, which really twists the knife in.

Also separating it from the blockbuster horror pack is the tone. It is a bleak and unrelenting nightmare of a movie, far removed from the fairground ride experience of multiplex horrors. And, in this writer’s opinion, all the better for it.

Little of this would work, however, given how much screen time they have, if not for the committed performances of both Ireland and Abbott Jr. Both excel in their roles as the nervy but resilient Louise and the gruff, twitchy Michael. Louise, in particular, is the beating heart of the movie and Ireland truly makes you invest in her increasingly twisted plight.

For all the good here, there are flaws. One of them being none of the spooky goings-on feel particularly fresh and a few of the shocks and scares are eerily similar to things seen elsewhere, giving a generic feel on occasion. There are also a couple of uses of CGI that feel a little hokey. While generally, Bertino is great at building atmosphere and tension, there are probably a few too many ominous zoom shots onto closed doors or ringing phones. Once again, something that feels overdone in supernatural horror.

In The Dark and The Wicked Bertino has delivered an intensely claustrophobic, fitfully gruesome and unrelentingly grim tale, added to by a pair of great central performances. And despite its flaws, it might just be his strongest film to date.

Screened as part of Fantasia Festival