The title, desaturated poster design, and trappings of IFC Midnight’s The Wretched makes it appear, at first glance, that it’s going to be a cerebral, arty horror flick in the vein of A24 offerings.
But a few minutes in and it becomes clear that that’s not what Brett and Drew Pierce’s movie is – at least, not entirely. If anything, the story plays out like an old-school kids’ adventure movie with all the familiar beats: Ben (John-Paul Howard) is a troubled city kid sent to live with his dad, Liam (Jamison Jones) in a small town for the summer. There are townie bullies who make him their target for no discernible reason other than that he’s the new kid. There is a quintessential Hot Girl he has his eye on – and Mallory (Piper Curda), the far more interesting one who has her eye on him. He sneaks out to summer parties. And, of course, he notices something is deeply weird about his next-door neighbor, Abbie (Zarah Mahler), but none of the adults in his life notice. When kids start disappearing and he suspects that Abbie has turned into something evil, no authority figure takes him seriously. All well-worn tropes that offer little in terms of unique dynamics.
But if that’s the plot, then the horror is centered around the modern “witch in the woods” trend: There is a powerful witch more ghoul than human. The woods are places to experience the ancient terrors of folklore. And, yes, there are mysterious, occult symbols that keep popping up, carved in tree trunks or hung with twigs and twine like witchy windchimes. It’s Fright Night meets The Witch and, inexplicably…it works. Mostly. We’ll get to that.
Here’s where I have to make a confession. Thanks to the pointed marketing, I did the one thing a film critic should never do: I went in with a preconceived notion about what the movie would be, so the tonal clash between teen-vs.-monster and arthouse horror initially jarred me, particularly thanks to dark, gloomy settings being overlaid with bright, modern pop music. But once I set that aside and settled into the movie the Pierce Brothers had actually made instead of the one I thought they had made, I started to see it for what it is: An excellent gateway horror movie.
Because, understand, there are some truly creepy moments highlighted by downright grotesque body horror. Once Abbie is possessed by the witch, The Wretch (Madelynn Stuenkel), it comes complete with a cadaverous face and rotting skin, the black, viscous goo of something rotting from the inside, and the pop-locking contortionism of an inhuman thing reshaping human musculature. A flash of The Wretch squatting, feral and gargoyle-like, on a porch railing before disappearing into the dark.
Atmospheric tension is done well, too. The anticipatory dread built by the ominous appearance of strange symbols scratched into wood. The instinctive paranoia triggered by the depths of a forest, when a twig snapping or birds falling silent might be because of a small predator – or it could be something sinister and malevolent creeping up behind you. The sharp and frustrated fear of a child who knows something is under his bed or that monsters lurk in her world, but can’t get the adults meant to protect them to believe. The Pierces do a fine job of tapping into our collective, primal fear of the woods, of the unknown, of the folklore about the creatures that lurk in the dark. This is what The Wretched does at its best.
Beyond that is where it starts to get a little wobbly. Much like those ’80s movies of old, the plotting is moved forward by asking you to massively embrace the concept of a willing suspension of disbelief. Ben makes some truly stupid but trope-ish decisions, like investigating things alone in the dark. The adults in the town are shockingly oblivious to what’s going on right under their noses. Fairly serious potholes ask you to just go with it to a degree that strains credulity. Certain seemingly important elements, like how The Wretch controls people by whispering in their ear, which apparently gives her the power to both control their minds and erase their memories, are never explained or mentioned – which becomes important when one of the central tenets the movie hinges on is that the reason she’s able to infiltrate the town is that no one remembers the children she’s stolen. But if that’s the case, has she whispered in the ear of the entire town? Is it some other power we’re never privy to? At one point, you’d think someone in a small town where everyone knows everyone else might have found it odd that a neighbor’s kid has suddenly stopped making appearances or when a parent does not remember their own child. Because of the thinly-explained nature of the witch and her powers, the biggest reveal of the movie lands without the revelatory exclamation point it’s meant to.
Still, it’s an entertaining movie, one that never drags. Those who are in it purely for unrelenting horror might find themselves disappointed. But for those who have not yet worked their way up to braving the slow-burn rigors of arthouse horror or the terror of a straightforward supernatural slasher flick, it’s the exact sort of film to act as a gateway to the rest. The horror is visceral and real but offset by scenes centering on Ben’s teen drama offering a reprieve. It’s certainly worth a watch, if only to see how the Pierce Brothers blend the disparate tones of old and new.
The Wretched hits digital, VOD, and select drive-in theaters on Friday, May 1st.