By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Adrienne Biddle has been a force behind some of the most chilling films of the 2010s; she produced Osgood Perkins’ acclaimed THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER and has collaborated with writer/director Bryan Bertino (THE STRANGERS) on THE MONSTER and MOCKINGBIRD. The duo are now back with their most frightening collaboration, THE DARK AND THE WICKED, and Biddle delves into its darkness with us here.
In select theaters and on VOD/digital platforms today from RLJE Films, THE DARK AND THE WICKED has won raves (including ours) on the festival circuit this year. Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. star as a brother and sister who return to their isolated family home in Texas to take care of their elderly mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) and ailing father (Michael Zagst). Mom seems consumed by grief, and the siblings discover that there are more threatening, unnatural forces at play. Tapping into fully relatable anxieties, THE DARK AND THE WICKED casts a chilling spell from its first scenes, and as Biddle explains, it was an especially personal project for Bertino.
What do you think it is about this dark material that has resonated so much with audiences?
Well, people have talked about the pandemic, and in a weird way, I guess the timing is good. We seem to be striking a chord in terms of isolation. What I really think people are responding to is being separated or distant from our parents at a very challenging time in the world’s history. But what drew me to the script originally, pre-COVID, is that adult children are going to have to deal with their aging parents. That’s a milestone in all of our lives, whether it’s the loss of a parent or having to take care of one; as we live longer, all of us are going to fade. That specter is something we haven’t seen talked about in this particular way before, and I was hopeful that people would be able to relate to that. I know Bryan has experienced loss in that way, and I think he tapped into some of that when writing the script. Stephen King addresses that in a lot of his novels: that the physical act of dying and death can be grotesque, and sometimes it can be in your face, but you have to deal with it.
How did Bertino first develop this idea?
One of my producing partners on the movie, Sonny Mallhi, was one of the producers on THE STRANGERS, and he made a movie that was called HURT and I believe has been retitled INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS, with an unusual, independent production approach. Bryan and Sonny had been talking, and Sonny explained to Bryan what he did, and Bryan was like, “You know, we should do a movie like that, using my prism.” So he brought Sonny on board to help with that, and step one was, what kind of story can I tell that will feel organic to this production model? Bryan was living in the house that’s in the movie at the time, a house on his family’s property that he uses when he goes home, and he often writes there. So drawing from some of his own life, he set it on that farm, which sort of killed two birds with one stone. Narratively, it touched a chord with him, and that comes across in the characters and their relationships, and on a production level, he had access to the farm and we were able to use it, and it all kind of magically came together.
Did much have to be changed in the house to fit the film, or did you shoot it as it was?
There was some production design in the house, but a lot of the stuff was there. Bryan’s stepmother Patty designed the space for Bryan; she has a store, and she would bring stuff over that she thought he might like. So the skulls and a lot of that decor were in there; there were little tweaks here and there, but for the most part, that is the house that he writes in when he stays with his family.
Your three lead performances are terrific. How were the actors cast, and was the part of the mother especially difficult to fill?
We shot the movie in Texas, and Bryan, being from the South, really wanted to make his Southern film. One thing that has always annoyed him is people in movies who don’t sound like they’re from the South. So we tried to get some local casting directors and find some local talent, because we always knew that Mom would be a role we would fill with a person we discovered, as opposed to a name actor. We saw a bunch of people, and from the get-go, when Bryan saw Julie and we all watched her tape, it was clear she was Mom, hands down. She was so engaged, so into it, and willing to do anything and everything for the love of the craft, and it really showed.
With Marin and Michael, Sonny had produced a movie with Jeff Nichols [Rachel Lambert’s IN THE RADIANT CITY] that they starred in as brother and sister, and he was always really impressed with them. Bryan had come across Marin on his own, and really liked her in the stuff he had seen, but it was an easy pairing because even though we weren’t familiar with Michael’s work, seeing them in that movie and then seeing Michael’s work subsequent to that, we were like, “Yes!” And Michael physically embodied elements of the role that were important to Bryan. Bryan wanted that character to have a certain physicality; he was looking for somebody who seemed authentically like a big, corn-fed Texas boy who worked on a farm, and the ugly truth is a lot of actors are small, but Michael is not.
How about Ireland, who has DARK AND THE WICKED’s most difficult role?
Well, Bryan was always like, she’s my lead. Marin was his first choice through a lot of different pressures and influences along the way. He always stood by her; he’d seen her in SNEAKY PETE, and she has an amazing face and is very expressive. If you’re familiar with Bryan’s work, he’s not the most wordy of writers, so he asks a lot of his actors in terms of being able to communicate what needs to be said quietly. Marin has the ability to do that, and she’s, I’ll use that word again, fearless. She really went there, and was very, very willing to go to the dark, sad places she needed to.
I also enjoyed seeing Xander Berkeley (CANDYMAN, TERMINATOR 2) as the priest, which is probably the creepiest role he’s ever played.
[Laughs] I’ve said it before: Xander’s bananas, he’s a total character. Unfortunately, we only had him for a day, so I didn’t get a chance to know him better, but he was such a professional. Xander gave us so many options; there was no take that was the same, which allowed us to create the perfect priest to fit the movie. He gave us a week’s worth of material in a day, and that’s a real testament to his ability with the craft.
The idea of family, and threats to the family, has been a major theme in horror this decade. Why do you think familial trauma has become such a touchstone for the genre?
The best horror, in my opinion, is the stuff that deals with the most intimate stories. We’ve dealt with a lot of intimate stuff in the past, but for some reason, getting into the nitty-gritty and the ugliness and peeling back the layers on family became OK to do in the modern era. Society gave us permission to do that, and horror took advantage of it. It’s an incredibly rich source to mine from; there’s a variety of dynamics that are all relatable, and we’ve all experienced the family unit.
Slow-burn horror has also become a popular trend in the last several years; BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER was one of the first of those to break out. Do you think that represents a pendulum swinging back from the more extreme horror of the 2000s?
I hope so. It’s just my personal taste: less is more. I’m not a cinephile in the traditional sense; I grew up a reader, and Stephen King basically narrated my childhood. What I love about books is that you can use your imagination, and to me that is always more frightening than looking at something that’s right in your face. The great masters of tension are the ones who know exactly the right moment to kind of let the air out of the balloon they’ve been slowly filling throughout the film. That’s been in horror films for a long time; I would actually say that THE STRANGERS was one of the first films to bring that back, and then James Wan did it with INSIDIOUS. They are patient filmmakers, and that’s who I’ve been working with for a lot of my career. By being patient, you can pull the audience in and give them this intense feeling. That tension is scarier, I believe, than blood and guts and jump-scares and any of that stuff. That’s what that lingers and stays with you, and that actually scares me.
Do you think you’ll collaborate with Bertino and Osgood Perkins again in the future?
You know, never say never, but I think this is my last movie with Bryan for a while. We were in a 10-year partnership that was terrific and very productive, but like all intense, spirited relationships, it was sort of time for us to say we need to see other people. And with Oz and I, I’m not sure; it all depends on whether the material makes sense for everybody to connect. Collaborating with Oz was one of the highlights of my career; I worked on getting BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER made for four years before we actually shot a frame of film. It was a true labor of love, and one of my favorite experiences I’ve had. I’d love to work with him again, but again, it would depend on the material.
Do you have any horror projects in the works right now?
You know, COVID has thrown a wrench into that. The business is so uncertain, and I’m eager to see how it shakes out, and then tell stories that make sense in that environment. Sonny and I have been talking a little bit about collaborating again and doing some stuff, but we’ll see how that all goes. It keeps you busy, but the world is a weird place right now.