As we head into late spring and look forward to summer, The Wretched is the perfect film for this time of year. Set in a lakeside town, the film juxtaposes beautiful natural imagery with a storyline about a witch who invades the vacation spot to steal children and make people forget that the children are even missing. Featuring relatively strong acting, stunning cinematography, and impressive practical effects, The Wretched is worth the watch.
Directed and written by brothers Brett Pierce and Drew T. Pierce, the film has solid casting. Jean-Paul Howard is likable as protagonist Ben, a teen still reeling from his parents’ imminent divorce. He’s an outcast and hounded by the cool kids, but he finds solace with Mallory (Piper Curda), his plucky marina co-worker. Their relationship is endearing and makes you remember what it was like to be their age. During a party, when Ben leans in to kiss her, he vomits. You can’t help but feel bad for the kid. This is coupled with the fact that a cast on his arm hampers him from participating in usual summer activities, like swimming.
Likewise, you can’t help but feel bad for Ben’s father, Liam (Jamison Jones), who’s trying to do his best considering the circumstances. Furthermore, the situation is complicated when Liam wants his son to meet his new girlfriend, Sara (Azie Tesfai). Ben’s confusion and anger is justified. Yet, Sara deserves sympathy, too. She generally seems to like Liam and isn’t trying to split apart a family.
The film’s other strength lies in the cinematography. There’s an interesting juxtaposition of imagery during the 90-minute run-time. For instance, in the opening scene, bright, plastic toys are shown soaked in mud as rain pours. An 80s pop song plays against this gloomy setting, again underscoring a clash of sorts. Later, jaw-dropping sunsets over the water are either followed or preceded by shots of the thick, shadowy forest surrounding the town. In another scene, a dead buck is shown in the back of a pick-up, and the camera focuses on blood dripping from its hoof. We get a sense early on that something menacing is out there.
The contrast of imagery works to highlight the threat to a setting that would typically be carefree during normal circumstances. The villain of the film, a “dark mother,” “born from root, rock, and tree,” according to Ben’s online research, is most terrifying when she possesses the female characters, starting with neighbor Abbie (Zarah Mahler). At one point, Abbie comes to Ben’s front door and threatens to snap his other arm, as the camera zooms in on her large, blackened eyes. It’s not overly done, but rather simple and effective.
The witch is made more terrifying by the special effects, especially her razor-like black fingernails that tear through flesh later in the film. In this regard, the influence of The Evil Dead is evident, especially when you consider that the directors’ father worked as a special effects artist on that film. Scenes of a possessed Abbie contorting her body in unnatural positions are just as unnerving. The idea of something ancient and evil lurking in the woods that has the power to possess is another nod to the Sam Raimi classic.
At times, however, parts of the story feel a bit muddled. For instance, the creature has little to no backstory. In an interview with Backlot Magazine, the Pierce brothers state that the inspiration for their witch came from several different folk tales, including the Boo Hag, a southern myth, and the Ada Witch, a Michigan tale. Yet, their witch doesn’t have enough of her own mythology to always work.
To add, most of the women in the film, other than Mallory, come across as evil. As the film goes on, this can be irksome. I suppose possession is to blame. That said, the narrative generally works, including a big reveal in the final act.
Overall, the film has plenty of scenes and shots that are as alluring as a witch’s spell. One frame will show a beautiful summer sky, before reminding us that the creature is out there and it won’t be long before someone else is possessed. Our sense of normality is shattered by everything from a baby wailing in the late night to the unnerving noises the creature makes in its natural form.
The tension is enhanced by Devin Burrows’ score. The use of 80s pop music early on is quite brilliant in creating a contrast of tones and images. All of this, coupled with the acting and characters, especially leads Ben and Mallory, make The Wretched a spell-binding watch.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.