'The Wretched': Film Review

Courtesy of IFC Films
An effective jolt of summertime shivers.
5/1/2020

A teenager struggling to accept his parents’ separation sees his family fears magnified into evil incarnate as an ancient witch starts making children disappear in the Pierce Brothers' dark fairy tale.

Writer-directors Brett and Drew Pierce (billed as The Pierce Brothers) know exactly what they're doing in the creepy prologue to The Wretched, which unfolds 35 years ago as the camera crawls around a lawn on which old-school kids' toys — a knitted bunny, crayons, model cars, an Etch-a-Sketch, a Rubik's Cube — lie abandoned in the rain. Inside the house, a babysitter arrives to find the flowers wilted and the mother of a young family busy committing a gruesome act in the basement. A blood-curdling scream accompanies a shot of an ancient witchcraft symbol carved into the door.

While the main action then skips ahead to "five days ago," the grounding in '80s horror lore provides a firm foundation, cleverly updated but also laced with visual nods that go even further back, to classic Spielberg. That kinship to the films of a specific era has informed a vast output in recent years, from Super 8 through Stranger Things to It. But retro references will only get you so far unless the storytelling works on its own terms, and this chiller about a malevolent force emerging from the woods to prey on the children of a lakeside town keeps you in its grip from start to finish. IFC Midnight should have no trouble scaring up genre fans craving a nasty treat.

Do all the tangled plot points make perfect sense once you step back and start reassembling the pieces as the end credits roll? Maybe not. But there's enough solid internal logic mixed in with the murky ambiguities to keep The Wretched far more compelling than its generic title might suggest. The filmmakers are working to a formula, but they definitely have fun with it, which is contagious.

It's clear we're in extremely capable hands as the Pierces (who made the zombie comedy Deadheads) display an assured grasp of character, pacing and mood. There's more suspense than major scares, but this is a thoroughly engrossing dark fairy tale, shot by Conor Murphy in unsettling low angles and insidious compositions, and graced by a Devin Burrows score that escalates from ominous dread into nerve-jangling haute terror. The absence of marquee names might present a marketing challenge, but sharp casting of a bunch of fresh faces provides plenty of appeal.

Following a transgression that left him with a broken arm, teenage Ben (John-Paul Howard) is sent to stay with his father Liam (Jamison Jones) for the summer, taking a job at the marina to give him some structure. The privileged local kids are either bullying jerks or unattainable babes, but Ben sparks up a friendship with easygoing co-worker Mallory (Piper Curda, bringing an insouciant spark to her scenes), which helps take the edge off his hurt discovery that his dad has a new girlfriend, Sara (Azie Tesfai).

As Ben struggles to process his anger over his parents' recent separation, his attention turns to the family in the large house next door, at first just in casual observations and then with an increasing obsessiveness out of Rear Window by way of the original Fright Night with a dash of The Lost Boys.

The mother of that family, Abbie (Zarah Mahler), has already been seen in an early interlude hiking in the woods with her young son Dillon (Blane Crockarell), who during a moment alone gets spooked by sounds and visions of a gnarled old tree that seems to want to lure him into its hollow trunk. Driving back, Abbie hits a deer, which she brings home to gut and carve up for meat. The entrails that spill out in that butchering scene hint at more bloodletting to come. But the carcass also is host to something else, a sinister creature glimpsed with the less-is-more power of suggestion.

In no time things start getting weirder at the neighbors' house, and a petrified Dillon tries hiding out with Ben as Abbie roams the yard with evil intent in a series of slinky Carrie-style prom dresses — one red floral print looks like blood spatters. When Ben tries checking on Dillon, Abbie's husband Ty (Kevin Bigley) looks mystified, claiming they have no son.

An internet search on Witchipedia turns up information about "a dark mother, born from root, rock and tree that feasts on the forgotten." Ben also learns that the witch has the power to erase all memory of loved ones. Liam dismisses his son's growing trauma as delusional, putting it down to the kid's messed-up state over his parents' split, and even Mallory seems not to take the danger too seriously. But the menace is real, accelerating as it's revealed that the predator is able to skip from one host to the next, going after fresh meat.

The Pierce Brothers liberally sprinkle loving homages to movies they probably grew up on — the marina setting is right out of Jaws; the battery-operated toys that spontaneously activate recall Close Encounters of the Third Kind; a bicycle inevitably evokes E.T. Just the basic idea of a youth at a crucial growing stage reeling from the dismantling of his family unit and dealing with alarming experiences that no one else believes is a quintessentially Spielbergian scenario.

There are also echoes of the Alien franchise in the climactic mayhem, with prey captured in a gooey tangle, and Mallory's kid sister Lily (Ja'layah Washington) is a dead-ringer for Ripley's surrogate daughter Newt once she starts squealing.

But there's also enough originality and distinctive occult flavor for The Wretched to work as more than just a diverting assortment of affectionate genre winks. The script devotes a refreshing amount of attention to character development, making Ben someone we really invest in, and the very likable Howard plays him with a wholesomeness just teetering on the brink of turning surly. It doesn't hurt that he's given a big twist late in the action that few will see coming, or that the requisite queasy coda after calm is restored needles him with a new dose of angst in the final moments.

The film looks and sounds polished in every department, but special mention must go to the first-rate makeup effects that generate lots of bone-crunching, limb-popping body horror and decaying flesh, subtly enhanced with CGI. Hitting a satisfying middle ground between the elevated horror of indie discoveries like Hereditary and more conventional glossy studio fare, The Wretched should easily pave the way for its directors to move on to bigger projects.

Production company: Little Runway
Distributor: IFC Midnight
Cast: John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Azie Tesfai, Zarah Mahler, Kevin Bigley, Jamison Jones, Blane Crockarell, Judah Paul, Gabriela Quezada Bloomgarten, Richard Ellis, Ja'layah Washington
Director-screenwriters: The Pierce Brothers
Producers: Brett Pierce, Drew Pierce, Chang Tseng, Ed Polgardy
Executive producers: Leman Porter, Lanier Porter, Willis King
Director of photography: Conor Murphy
Production designer: Marlena Feehery
Costume designer: Laura Cristina Ortiz
Music: Devin Burrows
Editor: Terry Yates
Sound designer: Eliot Connors

Makeup effects supervisor: Erik Porn
Visual effects supervisor: Joseph H. Coleman
Casting: Lisa Essary

95 minutes