You would be better off ignoring the misleading poster, trailer, and perhaps even the title of The Wretched, as they would definitely prime you to expect a different (and mostly lesser) film. Instead of a jump scare fueled creature feature, The Wretched is a stylishly shot mix of coming of age fright fare and folk fable that feels conceptually fresh, if not always perfect in execution.
17 year old Ben (John-Paul Howard) has been shuttled off to a rural resort town with more than a little bit of teenage angst, and a broken arm he’d rather not talk about. Having gotten into some trouble since his parents split, Ben’s mom hopes the change in environment will also change his behavior. Ben’s distracted but well meaning father Liam (Jamison Jones), doesn’t seem to have much of a plan on that front, other than fresh air and giving Ben a summer job at the local marina. Liam has his own worries, including a new girlfriend named Sarah (Azie Tesfai).
Ben certainly isn’t too thrilled with that situation. Or the job. Or the locals. In fact, the only real friend he’s made is the sassy Mallory, his coworker at the marina. To make matters worse, something strange (and possibly supernatural) is happening with the formerly adorable hipster family next door. Not only is neighbor Abbie (Zarah Mahler) acting completely differently, the local children are starting to disappear. Even stranger, Ben seems to be the only one who remembers the missing kids ever existed.
Once the supernatural elements (and what I’d assume is the titular wretched creature) arrive, this is where the film starts to wobble a touch. Zarah Mahler does a fantastic job of telegraphing just how far off Abbie has become, trading in her boho Burning Man cutoffs for femme dresses, a glassy eyed, hollow voiced parody of her former self once she has been possessed by the evil that lurks in the nearby woods.
The creature design consistently looks great, combining body horror elements with totems and animal bones to make a modern version of a folkloric witch convincingly menacing and unique. Somehow both desiccated and dripping with decomposition, the witch is satisfyingly creepy even when glimpsed only briefly in the reflection in the eye of a dead deer, or over a fuzzy baby monitor video.
What is lacking is a fully fleshed out mythology. The big bad is a forest witch the film briefly refers to as “Dark Mother”. We don’t get much information on the why or how of her skin walker style possessions of humans and animals, nor on the mechanism of making families forget their own children ever existed. The concept of being forgotten being in many ways worse than death is an intriguing one, that the film never really utilizes to its maximum potential.
Ben and Mallory have a nice crackle of chemistry, which helps the more obvious coming of age plot beats (drunken confessions, budding summer romance, boardwalk bullies, obligatory houseparty with red Dixie cups and contraband booze), go down smoothly. John-Paul Howard’s Ben is likable as a collie, in spite of his ill-considered tendencies toward sulking and idly spying on the neighbors.
Once the witch is properly introduced, we move away from Ben and Mallory’s budding relationship. Instead we get a few too many sequences of a brooding Ben doing surveillance, then desperately trying to tell adults and authority figures what’s wrong. As trope dictates that parents just don’t understand, that time would have been better spent fleshing out some of the thinner elements in the witch mythos and the relationships between the film’s teens.
Even accounting for a bit of a plod to the third act, and some late in the game plot twists that don’t quite land, The Wretched is a freaky fairy tale worth spending time with. While not quite a classic, The Wretched is full of bang for your buck special effects work and sleek stylistic flourishes that will certainly inspire nostalgia in those who spent their summer vacations watching a steady diet of throwback teen terrors like Fright Night or The Lost Boys.
WICKED RATING: 6/10
Director(s): The Pierce Brothers (Brett Pierce, Drew T. Pierce)
Writer(s): The Pierce Brothers (Brett Pierce, Drew T. Pierce)
Stars: John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Jamison Jones, Zarah Mahler, Azie Tesfai
Release: May 1st, 2020 (VOD/Digital)
Studio/ Production Co: IFC Midnight
Length: 95 minutes