Directed By Brett Pierce and Drew T. Pierce
Starring – John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Jamison Jones
The Plot – A defiant teenage boy (Howard), struggling with his parents’ imminent divorce, faces off with a thousand year-old witch, who is living beneath the skin of and posing as the woman next door.
The film is currently not rated.
– False advertising. For all of its ominous atmosphere and terrifying chills, “The Wretched” is anything but the thrilling bloodbath advertised so candidly. Instead, there’s a grim fairytale kind of glow emitting from its presentation. Likewise, the overall lack of splatter in the blood department gives this an adult Goosebumps kind of vibe that I wasn’t expecting, complete with childlike protagonists and otherworldly monsters that focus more ideally on the creeper, and less on the creeping. That’s not to say that there isn’t a chill factor to the movie. It still comes through on what we’ve come to expect from grotesque creature features, complete with untimely frights and gruesome imagery, it’s just that this movie’s soul caters to an audience that doesn’t define horror by one splash of color, and instead cements something deeper that doesn’t feel desperate or confined by just one thing.
– Exceptional special effects. For a movie with an obviously cheap budget as this movie is often plagued with, the overall concept on practical special effects and detailed make-up becomes easily the most surprising benefit that “The Wretched” has going for it. In concept alone, the designs of the witch are a stimulating throwback to drive-in cinema, complete with skin-stretching bodily transformation and enhanced personal features while under her spell that springs creativity. It helps that most of the movie’s cinematography is catered towards her big reveal, preserving the mystique of the creature until the climatic big reveal, but that doesn’t mean that focusing on these individual pieces isn’t beneficial enough. It allows you to take in the complete picture of the monster once she’s shown in her entirety, and makes the against-her-will possession all the more sinisterly when you understand it from every conceptual angle.
– Absorbing sound mixing. Another pivotal contributing factor to the monster’s intimidating presence is the stellar sound design and riveting editing by Elliot Connor that crackles and pops with terrifying proximity. The weight and bodily adjusting of the antagonist is one thing that audibly enhances the bigger picture taking place internally, but it’s the echoing atmosphere that resonates hand in hand entrancingly with Devin Burrows anxiety-building score that cements a fully isolated experience into this anything but desirably appealing setting. On the subject of said music, Burrows conjures more organ and percussion than I previously heard on the last Tool album, conjuring up a consistency for the doom-and-gloom enveloping that is the most elusive horror score that I have heard in recent memory that doesn’t involve synth enhancements. It cements a completely immersive experience in the picture that covers its depth from every angle of production, and articulates unabashed concentration while doing so.
– Earned jump scares. That’s right, even something as cliche’d and tacky to me as predictably one-note jump scares are rendered in a way that feels every bit effective as they are justified to their inclusion to the script. For one, it’s a gimmick that doesn’t feel overly used in the film, only going to the well on three different occasions, with none of the three repeating itself in a predictably bland way. Secondly, the jumps themselves aren’t articulated by anything off-screen, like a sharp musical sting or unnatural sound, to enhance its impact. These are instead natural scares taking shape in real time recording. Finally, it’s the way the jumps add to the unorthodox movements of the monster that plays into the unnatural aspects of its biology, snapping in a feverishly sudden circumstance that is fruitful reminder of the character’s transformation.
– Throwback production. There’s a subtle, almost completely absent 80’s timely presence to the structure of the narrative and its surrounding characters that reminded me candidly of the many B-movie creature features that I grew up adoring. I mentioned the Goosebumps comparison earlier, but beyond that it’s a world where adults are mentally inferior to their children, often with the former stacking the body count in ways the latter would never dream of. In addition to this, the personalities of the characters seem formulaic in a way that caters to the many character tropes of the decade for all positively beneficial reasons. The Pierce brothers so evidently grew up with such pictures, and incorporate much of the sentimentalities and tropes of the age subtly into their film. It’s a touch of Stranger Things without the heavy overhaul of 80’s nostalgia reminding us every few minutes, and with the overall absence of technology, could in fact be set in the hair metal age when horror movies doubled with each passing year.
– Plenty of surprises. Another aspect of contemporary filmmaking is the intro that visually conveys “___ Years earlier” without a reason for doing so. This movie not only does that, but does so in a way that gains something because of the cleverness within this framing device. The movie begins with a scene that takes place 35 years earlier, and then cuts to five days ago. The great thing is it doesn’t give away what’s happening in current day with either of these timelines, and builds towards a finale with two twists of its own. The first completely floored me, and made sense regardless of how long I thought about it looking for inconsistencies. The second sends the movie off on a final emphasis that granted we have seen before, but affected me positively because it spends its final moments with the only character I remotely gave a damn about throughout.
– Character flaws. As entertaining as this movie can be at times, spending 90 minutes with protagonist Ben is at the head of the class of many poor character decisions the movie makes for us. Howard isn’t a bad actor by any stretch, it’s just his bland characterization does him no favors in making him even remotely appealing to the audience watching at home. This is a similar problem with 90% of the other characters in this movie as well, as the overall characterization documents a series of people with no personalities or diversity to sell their appeals. In fact, with the exception of Curda’s Mallory, you could’ve gotten rid of every single one of them, and it would’ve cost the movie literally nothing in the appealing department that the movie’s finer points. This all leads to not a single reputable performance for me to gush over, and a slew of wasted potential in many actors first big screen gig, which gets them off to forgettable starts.
– One painful scene. There’s an exposition dive in the middle of the film that takes place between two characters seeking answers for the witch in the form of an online search engine. I hate everything about this scene, but the biggest torture is its logic, which gives answers for something so supernatural that no police officer or authority figure has decided to look into. We’re just supposed to accept this as factual within the scope of this world, and should be thankful that most of our questions about the cryptic figure were answered in the most convenient way. Which brings me to my other problem with the scene; it spoils the mysticism of such an antagonist. Similar to when the Halloween franchise tried to answer too much about Michael Myers, “The Wretched” clumsily falls for the same allure about the uncertainty, which in turn brings forth many plot holes about the rules associated with her character. It’s a scene that I would gladly remove if I were tasked with making a cut of the movie on my own, and only does harm to a second act that was getting the story in intriguing directions.
– Abundance of subplots. The Pierce brothers take a breakthrough step on the scene of mainstream horror with a direction that provides several unique touches. Unfortunately, they should’ve probably gotten someone else to write the screenplay, because their passion project feels overloaded with too much time wasted on subplots that never materialize into anything with nuanced depth beyond the central plot. Some examples of this involve the torn apart family narrative that is only occasionally brushed off, the disappointing underwriting of the romantic subplot between Ben and Mallory, the unclear rules of the witch that often contradicts itself, and a bullying gang that disappears just when you think they will receive their satisfying come-uppance. This is of course convoluting on the pacing, but beyond that it gives off a feeling that the Pierce brothers were throwing anything at a wall, and hoping anything would stick. Very little does because of minimal time allowance, and results in so much about this movie that I would gladly cut out or maximize on time if I was given the chance.
– Tale of two halves. For my money, the first half of this movie feels inferior to a second half that eventually finds its pacing, and settles into a full-fledged creature feature mystery that falls in the hands of two Summer-bored kids. The first half of the movie felt every bit muddled as it did straining on finding any semblance of blood, gore, or even action to tie me over until the major climax for the movie took shape. As I said before, I don’t have a problem with the first two things on the list, but if the third one isn’t there either, it makes a horror movie certainly a difficult one to get through, and for this one in particular resulted in several moments during the first 45 minutes where I nearly tapped out. With the exception of the very opening scene of the movie, in which we see nothing, and everything is presumed, there is nothing even closely satisfying to it until there is 25 minutes left in the film. Even then, the experience can’t escape this overwhelming gap with too much exposition and not enough menace in action, resulting in a bit too much of a dry experience for a movie with such a visceral title.
My Grade: 6/10 or C