Given the current state of the world, smaller films, that might not have had much of a shot at competing with big cinematic releases, appear to be getting their time in the sun, thanks to the bigger films being delayed. None are more welcome here than a horror film, a genre which is perfect for home viewing.
The Wretched follows broken-armed teenage Ben, who goes to spend some time with his dad amidst his parent’s divorce, and discovers that there might very well be an ancient Witch living next door.
From the off, this creature feature of sorts by brothers Brett and Drew T. Pierce owes a debt to Steven Spielberg. There appears to be a homage to the back catalogue in spades. The setting of a sea-side town and the docks nearby lend it a sort of Jaws feel, and one character is purposefully named Shaw, after Robert Shaw, a lead actor in the 1975 film.
There has been a move in recent times to reclaim witches as horror icons, thanks in no small part to Robert Eggers’ The Witch, The Autopsy of Jane Doe and the recent remake of Suspiria. Here we have a fairly well-worn trope of ‘someone from the outside stumbles upon a growing situation and no one buys what the kid is saying’. The table is set out fairly well for the audience, and the sinister opening minutes allow for a slow build as we are introduced to our protagonist, Ben.
John-Paul Howard is pretty good in his leading role; Ben is not as smarmy as an 80s counter-point, nor as self-referential and flippant as a 90s hero, this time his sort of rebel-without-a-clue character works well. Howard manages to have us root for him, even if the writing and pacing is a little off. In fact, the entire cast is solid: Jamison Jones as his father, Azie Tesfai, Kevin Bigley and Zarah Mahler are all really good and are game enough for the broad characterisation. However, the stand out in the film is Piper Curda as new friend Mallory who has the sort of Ally Sheedy meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer smarts that really the film could have used more of.
The film isn’t without ideas: the strange symbol that marks the abode of the witch, the idea that she makes people forget about their children, and the sinister squelchy sound effects are all very effective. Throughout the film, the idea of a witch wearing women’s skin as a flesh onesie is one that can offer all kinds of body horror potential. There’s even an idea about a warped maternal nature calling to mind Hansel and Gretel, as well as a sort of siren nature to how they can seduce men.
Sadly, the film is badly paced. The first half an hour is all character work, and while that’s no bad thing, it’s fairly basic stuff and doesn’t really work. The idea of Ben trying to be in with some cool kids is referenced and then becomes nothing; it’s a bit high school drama-y for a film that should feel more like a folktale, like Guillermo del Toro’s productions. Moreover, the growing conspiracy and the sense of foreboding isn’t used nearly enough, coupled with messy mythology that isn’t thoroughly explored or explained, meaning we’re never entirely sure quite what is going on.
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The score, however, by Devin Burrows is very good and harks back to the 70s and 80s scores of horror films melding big orchestral John Williams’ style themes with synth John Carpenter stuff. It’s fantastically well shot by Conor Murphy who gives it a sense of place, as well as mood and atmosphere, and what little visual effects and make-up effects are done fantastically, showing what can be done with an idea and game performers.
It’s not a particularly scary film, but jumps do come in fits and starts, and the core concept of a witch making you forget about your children so that it can take them away to do awful things to them is a reliably solid idea for horror. Had the film been a bit more focussed on that and less on the melodrama and the plodding, the film could have been something really good.
As it is it’s a so-so but enjoyable horror film that at 90 minutes doesn’t outstay it’s welcome and has enough solid ideas that it might inspire some more witch-based horror. It also sets up the Pierce Brothers as ones to watch in the world of horror. Most of all it hopefully paves the way for something bigger for Piper Curda. If you’re catching it at home, and you hear a creak, just try not to get too scared.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.