The Horrific Formula: The Rise of Bertino Films

Most streams of cinema follow a formula, especially nowadays, and especially horror. Most would claim that there is only so much you can do with horror. Oh sure, you can remove this and replace it with that, but the outcome is usually the same. What drives most enthusiasts towards horror films is the aesthetic. Some crave the gore while others long for the nostalgic familiarity of childhood fears.

Let’s be honest, the chances of horror being revamped or completely reconstructed by another Kubrick, Craven, or Carpenter is slim to none with most producers backing the motto, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” And they’re right! If it guarantees revenue why bother to gamble with originality? So it’s up to those who can walk a fine line between the formula and originality, leaving room for hope and improvement.

Personally, the horse I’m backing is Bryan Bertino.

Bryan, a writer, director, and producer has only been in the game for roughly thirteen years, so if you haven’t heard of him don’t fret. You’d have to be a heavy fanatic for him to be mentioned in passing. You might, however, recognize some of his films: The Strangers (2008), The Monster (2016), and most recently The Dark and the Wicked (2020). 

So what makes Bryan so special? Yes, his films do follow the standard formula. Usually two helpless unsuspecting victims coming face to face with pure evil in one form or another, who use their wits, usually to no avail, to survive. Sounds pretty common, right? What makes his films stand out is the unnerving realism of his characters, and the uncompromising evil that often triumphs in the end. 

In his latest film, The Dark and the Wicked, we are forced to witness an awkward standing of a brother and sister, begrudgingly returning to their middle of nowhere rural family home to assist their ailing mother with their dying father. The film makes use of a southern drawl, letting the build up do most of the work, and with the entire plot being contained to one week, the anticipation of the end is enough to keep you on edge. This family of atheists unintentionally welcome a great evil into their home who, piece by piece, chisels away at their sanity. Most Bertino films are a slow burn, so patience is a must, but oh how it’s worth the wait. This latest feat offers the usual jump scare tactic, but also a nuanced stomach churning and often awkward form of gore that will haunt you long after the credits roll. The ambiguity of its ending will have you questioning the very ideals of faith and what it truly means to believe. 

Where Bertino deviates heavily from this commonplace formula is with his characters. Refusing to abide by horror character archetypes (the 80s cliche of dumb jocks, sex hungry cheerleaders, and good natured vigins) he offers instead, an in depth perception of the modern hero. These are people we can relate to, who we sympathize for, who we hope to persevere. The Strangers gave us Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler’s James and Kristen, a couple on the verge of ruin after a disastrous proposal, only to be confronted with a trio of sadists, salaciously toying with their kill. In The Monster we were given Kathy, a single mother junkie on a road trip to forfeit rights over her daughter, Lizzy, over to her ex. A trip that is interrupted by a flat tire and a creature with an unnatural appetite that stalks them through a relentless rain in a dark, foreboding forest. We are not given livestock, to be mercilessly slaughtered by a madman, but people, real people we can identify with in our daily lives. Bertino perfects a slow buildup in which we examine the habits, lives, and quirks of these heroes before their inevitable demise, which can often be heart wrenching and terrifying to witness. 

This type of horror may not be for the traditionalists, or those who demand the plot to cut to the chase. Bertino is an aspiring master of suspense and tension. He is introducing you to the lives of his victims before the terror seeps through. Even if slow burns are not your cup of tea, his attempt to implement creativity to a rather stale formula is commendable.


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