2020 is a weird year. On March 23rd, my state decided to lockdown. It’s only been recently that I even felt any semblance of safety in leaving the house at all and even then, it comes with a mild amount of anxiety. It’s not so bad though. I’m catching up on my bookshelf of Criterion discs. I beat Ghost of Tsushima in a few weeks. I made my vinyl collection something to be proud of. Still, I miss my friends and the movie theater. No one really wins in this pandemic, but if there were winners, they were movies like The Wretched.
The Wretched premiered on VOD and theaters back on May 1st costing a modest $66,000 to produce. Due to it being one of the very few titles being released and the resurgence of drive-in cinema, The Wretched topped the box office for six straight weeks. To date, the only other film to top the box-office for six consecutive weeks is Avatar. Not bad company at all. The film has gone on to make $3.1 million, almost 47 times its production cost.
The film begins on a scene set 35 years ago; a babysitter arrives for a night’s work. The house is in obvious disarray and the phone is off the hook. Through unawareness or legitimate reasoning (my family often took the phone off the hook for uninterrupted dinners), the babysitter unflinchingly traverses the seemingly empty house. Noticing the basement door ajar, she makes her way to the basement to find a woman with severe bone and joint issues feasting on something in the corner of the room.
Creeping up to the woman, the babysitter finally realizes something is amiss. The chomping noises stop and the head of the family’s daughter is revealed. A chunk of flesh missing from the child’s neck. Racing to the basement stairs, the babysitter arrives just in time to see the family patriarch locking the basement door. As the babysitter screams behind the locked door the camera pans out on a haunting sigil carved into the door.
This intro is highly effective, even if it is completely unrelated to the rest of the film. Setting tone and suspense, some real patience in camera work and editing pays off here. Intros like this one can make or break a film. Scream (one of my absolute favorites) arguably has the best intro in the horror genre. It gives the audience a peek of the carnage to come, do it wrong and your audience abandons you ten minutes in. Adding to that, I had now gathered a checklist of questions the film needed to answer.
The rest of the film focuses mainly on Ben (John-Paul Howard). We meet Ben riding a bus to get to his father’s house in the country for the summer. Ben’s arm has recently been put in a cast from bungling the theft of prescription painkillers while robbing a neighbor’s house. The event led him to fall out of a second-story window while escaping. Only having Ben’s name written on the cast, a fellow bus rider muses, “You’re quite the little artist.” This leaves the audience to conclude Ben is a loner.
Ben begins settling into his summer life. Welcomed warmly by his father, Liam (Jamison Jones), who has procured Ben a job at the marina alongside him. Ben befriends Mallory (Piper Curda) at work and notices his father has eyes for Sara (Azie Tesfai). Attempting the high road, Ben asks his dad for an introductory dinner.
Here we are introduced to Abbie and Dillon (Zarah Mahler & Blane Crockarell), Ben’s neighbors. The hiking pair have becoming lost briefly. As Abbie struggles to get her directional bearings, Dillon is drawn to a tree with the same carvings we saw on the basement door from the intro.
Abbie’s voice is luring him to the hole at the base of the tree. Dillon inches closer, concerned for his mother but unnerved by the calls. Abbie, excited to tell him she’s found the way out, grabs Dillon and they resume their hike. This is where the movie begins to really take off.
Having hit a buck on their way home, Abbie is excited to teach her kids and husband “meat doesn’t come shrink-wrapped from the grocery store.” Showing Dillon how, Abbie guts the animal, and the foul scent of rotted intestines sends them both back into the house. After dark, a dark entity is seen emerging from the gutted buck.
Startled awake by rooftop noises, Ben decides to investigate further. He is led to a hole in the side of the neighbor’s porch amid a newly planted, vibrant flowerbed. Tension mounting, Ben is alerted by his periphery where a silhouette of a figure is perched on the porch. As he turns to confirm its presence, his neighbors turn on the lights and ask him to leave. Unsure and rattled by the evening’s events, Ben begins keeping tabs on the house a la Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window.
The next day at the marina, Ben meets Dillon and enlists him in keeping an eye out for anything strange. Ben bails on his dinner with his dad’s girlfriend and heads to a party that ultimately doesn’t go his way. Meanwhile, Abbie is awakened by her baby monitor. She goes to investigate the noise finding an opened window and a wrapped bundle of sticks where her baby should be. Chomping noises and blood pools under the crib. Abbie has no time to react, grabbed by what lies beneath.
The following evening, Dillon is found hiding in Ben’s room. A brooding Abbie appears at the door insistent to collect him, but Ben refuses. When Dillon’s dad arrives to find Abbie on the porch, Dillon finally feels safe to leave.
The next day, Dillon is a no-show for his boating lesson with Ben at the marina. When Ben goes to ask his father why, his father insists, “We don’t have any kids.” On his way off the porch, Ben notices all the flowers in the garden have died as he leaves the porch.
Confiding in his Mallory, Ben has been researching witchcraft on the internet. Ben believes this “Dark Mother” is wearing Abbie as a skinsuit and using spells to make people forget the children once she’s feasted upon them. Mallory responds by “poking the bear” with an ominous note triggering the witch to go after Mallory and her sister.
Ben and the witch engage in a cat and mouse game leaving Ben few options on who to trust as his father worries he’s heading down the same path that led to his injury. Can Ben stop the witch before she feasts on anyone else?
The Wretched is fun overall. It’s the entertaining type of horror movie you want in the summer. When it presents you with that series of questions in the intro, you’re excited to find the answers. The script does a great job of building three-dimensional characters and in a brief period. This is a feat that many horror films struggle with in a 95-minute space, usually sticking the viewer in exposition hell. Here you’re concerned when Ben tries to save Mallory’s sister and is knocked unconscious.
The practical effects and makeup here really shine. The close-ups of the witch in the tree at the end, the sagging of the rotting skinsuits, and a moment where the witch crawls out from Sara’s skin all get your attention. Additionally, the chomping sound of the witch feasting goes so well with the on-screen visuals that the noise stays with you. Thinking about it right now evokes the visuals from the film. Kudos to the sound team.
The lore in The Wretched is brief but it works for the attentive viewer. Keep in mind, we’re really looking to check the boxes from the intro and not expand our minds into a world of covens of various witches as this would bog the movie down. Sure, we get a few more questions. The final twist at the end of the film rekindles that, but I believe we’re being provoked. Maybe the Pierce Brothers have an idea to expand the world of The Wretched someday? Even if it’s not the case, I can’t imagine having benefited from excessive lore or additional scenes detailing it.
At times, it may be too character-heavy for its own good, insisting on making things slightly more complicated than necessary. I found that all the bully encounters specifically don’t add more than additional obstacles to the overall storyline. Ben’s boxers are stolen at the party during a hazing ritual, causing a rift between Mallory and Ben. Just before that, Ben embarrasses himself by vomiting on Mallory. This alone was probably enough for some tension between the characters. Later, one of these bullies sucker punches Ben while he’s racing to save Mallory’s sister. Already on the far side of a field leading to the woods, a fight with the bullies erupts. This feels like an unnecessary inconvenience and caused me to roll my eyes at the screen.
The biggest loss of points in this movie came in the form of a M. Night Shyamalan style twist. The setup for it is really good, so I’ll give the movie that. The twist, however, acts as more of a middle finger than an “aha!” moment. During the climactic final scenes, Ben saves his dad from the neighbor’s burning house. The witch’s monstrous exhibition of twigs and face-scratched pictures burns in the attic. Ben suddenly realizes he’s had a brother this whole time. He’s been in all the key scenes beginning with sitting on the bus etching artwork into his brother’s cast.
Now Ben must go save his little brother, but the audience has no character build for. It is an inventive twist. However, the audience doesn’t have the level of empathy they had when Ben was knocked out in the woods. To the film’s favor, Ben’s brother isn’t a big enough part of the film for the audience to dwell on. This allows The Wretched to still build excitement in the showdown at the witch’s tree.
Despite a muddied climax, The Wretched still works. It’s ultimately a fun movie with good characters, an excellent pace, and some great effects. If you’re a fan of horror where kids have to solve a mystery a la Stranger Things or Summer of ’84, you’ll have a good time.
The Wretched is now on Hulu and worth the watch.