The story of a teenager who battles a child-gobbling hag in a small coastal down, the Pierce Brother's 'The Wretched' now belongs to a tiny group of films that have topped the U.S. box office for six weekends in a row - including 'Titanic' and 'Avatar' - thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic limiting the amount of films in theatres.
17-year old protagonist Ben (John-Paul Howard) broke his arm breaking into, and then out of, a friend's house. His newly divorced and recently relocated father Liam (Jamison Jones) helps his son get back on the straight and narrow by getting him a gig at his marina. In quick succession, he meets cute co-worker Mallory (Piper Curda), unattainable hottie JJ, and her rich jock boyfriend, Gage.
Unluckily for the teenager, his next-door neighbour, Abbie (Zarah Mahler), is inhabited by an icky creature (her children become food for the beast). Based on the "Boo Hag", a witch has come to town and Ben struggles to survive against a supernatural being that can erase memories and cast all manner of spells.
Teen angst feels almost redundant in horror films, but the condition provides a decent emotional centre here. To quote Roger Ebert; it's not what a movie's about, it's how it's about it. The appeal of 'The Wretched' doesn't rest in originality of concept and certainly not the characters. The appeal rests in the execution which is fun, tense, disgusting, and manages to combine subgenres in a way that tries for novelty, if not originality.
The movie begins with a shocking scene and then settles into a degree of restraint that is manifested in, among other things, very fleeting, shadowy views of the titular menace as a constantly prowling shape. Shot around Omena and Northport, Michigan, the locations - the marina, a country store, and an outdoor party - play a huge part in perfecting the subtly sinister setting.
Exceptional sound design and excellent effects help a lot, too. 'The Wretched' is compelling thanks to its focus on the shape and texture of its central spectre, especially waxy mottled skin, and pus-and-blood-infected wounds.
For the most part this is a scary story well told, nothing more. It's the kind of film where a character spots a weird symbol and easily looks it up online, triggering some exposition and scary pictures. But the film also has a problem with finding its rhythm, oscillating between dark and disturbing, and a 80s summery teenage vibe.
The appeal of 'The Wretched' doesn't rest in originality of concept and certainly not the characters. The appeal rests in its the execution which is fun, tense, disgusting and manages to combine subgenres in a way that tries for novelty, if not originality.
Once the witch reveals itself to Ben, 'The Wretched' plays out like 'Fright Night' or 'I Am Not a Serial Killer', with its teenage lead investigating some dodgy behaviour by the neighbours that we already know are shady. At this point, the film settles into predictability. Like a lot of modern horror movies, 'The Wretched' is somewhat hampered by the amount of similarities it shares with other genre films - its preponderance for snatched sprogs, shape-shifting primordial ghoulies, spooky trees and subterranean lairs brings to mind Corin Hardy's 'The Hallow' and Lee Cronin's 'The Hole in the Ground'. The film isn't fuelled by the same manic energy as 'The Evil Dead,' so it understandably flags whenever it's not mining deep pockets of unnerving violence. But when 'The Wretched' is fixated on body horror transformations and home invasion thrills, it earns comparisons to Sam Raimi's genre milestone.
On a micro-level, 'The Wretched' gets the job done. The Pierce Brothers and their crew suck viewers in with pulpy wet sounds of flesh popping open or bones splintering. The simple pleasure of watching filmmakers take time to tease out their monster is slight, but it goes a long way when you stack 'The Wretched' up against its competition. Pick out any number of horror titles that came out in 2020, and see how well the Pierce Brothers film their central beast in comparison. These scare scenes aren't just competent - they're consummately disgusting and appreciably creepy, too.