An 80s horror homage without any of the bite of its predecessors, The Wretched had the potential to be something great but ultimately fumbles just ahead of the finish line. Written and directed by brother duo Brett and Drew T. Pierce, The Wretched follows teens Ben (John-Paul Howard) and Mallory (Piper Curda) – sort of – as Ben arrives at the harbourside town of Cascade to visit his dad. Before long things take a turn, as Ben’s neighbour Abbie (Zarah Mahler) is possessed by a witch and begins a spree of abductions and murders that catches Ben’s attention.
To put it bluntly, the characters in The Wretched are boring. Ben is the embodiment of every teen of divorced parents that we’ve seen before and if it weren’t for the fact that his name was written on the cast of his broken arm (which has zero tie in to the plot beyond a vague set up that doesn’t reach its payoff until the film’s final 5 minutes) I wouldn’t have been able to remember his name at all. As for the bit players, there’s the group of spoiled rich teens who bully Ben just because they can (do kids like that still exist?), the woman that Ben shuns just because she’s dating his dad, and the estranged dad in question, Liam, who manages the rental office at the docks and does embarrassing things like buy his son a bike with a basket on the front.
And to round out this ensemble are the leading ladies Mallory and Abbie, both of whom have been reduced to awkward stereotypes and odd idealisms; Mallory is immediately presented to us as the ‘quirky’ I’m-not-like-other-girls girl whose sole defining traits are that she wears galaxy print pants (in 2020? Really??) and likes cherry Starburst. Mallory plays a somewhat critical role in the film, entering into a summer romance with Ben and inadvertently setting herself up to be a victim of the witch. Despite her role, we know literally nothing about her, her family background, or personality beyond what was stated above.
And Abbie, our unwilling antagonist, is shown as that ‘ideal’ hot, cool mum who struts around in her oversized rock t-shirts and denim cut-offs with tattoos showing, who drinks beer and knows how to gut animals. What is her relationship with her husband like? When did they arrive in Cascade? Her life is equally open to interpretation, leaving too many gaps for the audience to fill in.
The Pierce Brothers’ decision to keep the key cast small and confined in number was smart and has proven to work before in films such as Peele’s Us or Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, but where The Wretched fails in comparison to its peers is that the characters have no real flesh on their bones, nothing to make them engaging or seem like more than an average caricature.
With its lack of well-developed characters, The Wretched should have leaned into and explored the deep mythos of its plot to make up for its shortfall. Sadly, the Pierce Brothers didn’t do this either and what we’re left with is 96 minutes of undercooked horror. A mysterious woodland witch who possesses a family matriarch, abducts and kills children all while erasing the child’s existence from your memory is a great villain but that’s all we ever learn about her through the film’s entire run.
How did she come to exist? Why does she haunt this town in particular? What is the significance of her deer skull altar, the vandalised family photos, the secret lair in the depth of the woods? And what really caused Ben to be suspicious of Abbie in the first place? In the time that the Pierce Brothers could have been answering these questions or planning a more elaborate, thrill inducing catalyst for their ‘Teen vs. Evil’ final showdown we were instead subjected to Ben throwing up at a party, sleeping on the job, and a scene where one would be forgiven for thinking came right out of 2007’s Disturbia wherein he sets himself up at a top storey viewing platform and watches his possibly-definitely-a-murderer neighbour have sex with her host’s husband through his binoculars.
What the film lacks in engaging characters and plot, it kind of makes up for in production. Filmed near the Pierce’s hometown in Michigan, the exterior locations are beautifully shot and appear welcoming enough while also giving the distinct impression that Cascade is a naturally bad place for a nasty witch spirit to run wild. Surrounded by endless water on one end and dense forest on the other, the danger feels all encompassing and adds a sense of pressure to the film, igniting a fight-or-die instinct in its characters.
Employing a smooth mix of practical and special effects, we do get blessed with moments that avid genre fans will appreciate. Well timed and implemented jumpscares and Paranormal Activity-esque set ups help to prevent the film from being totally boring, while the makeup department, lead by Bianca Appice whose credits include American Horror Story, Ouija: Origin of Evil and The Human Centipede III, did a great job portraying Abbie’s physical decline after falling victim to the witch; tattoos now faded under a green complexion, dark bruising around the eyes and spine, and the loose sagging skin that gives the feeling of the witch eating away at her from the inside. This change in appearance is also stylishly juxtaposed with her change in wardrobe, which goes from care-free cool to elevated, hyper-feminine and form fitting. In terms of sound engineering, the eerie and atmospheric score by Devin Burrows helps to play up the jump scares just the right amount to make them fully effective and pairs nicely with Eliot Connors’ sound design, filling our ears with classic insect-like chattering and rigid bones popping and creaking with the witch’s every move.
Despite its box office success (owed almost entirely to COVID-19 shutting down cinemas worldwide), The Wretched doesn’t quite live up to its potential. It is by no means a waste of your time, and those who prefer their horror on the lite side may find it rather enjoyable, but for those of us genre fans who thrive on the tension, gore, or simply bizarre horror, this entry will fall short.