Terror takes a vacation in “The Wretched”

The Wretched The Wretched (IFC Midnight)

The Pierce Brothers give some old tropes a fresh coat of paint in a creepy tale that pits a troubled teen against a child-eating witch.

We all remember the moment where our childhoods ended. Sometimes it happens when we get our hearts broken for the first time, or when a loved one passes away. Occasionally, like Ben (John-Paul Howard), the hero of The Wretched, it’s when you’re forced to save your father from a cannibalistic pagan witch. Hey, we all have to grow up sometime.

Ben, after getting into trouble that resulted in a broken arm, is forced to spend the summer with his father, Liam (Jamison Jones). Though Ben loves his dad, he still carries around a lot of unresolved feelings about his parents’ divorce, which are only complicated further when Liam begins dating again. After Liam hires him to work at a marina, Ben quickly befriends cute co-worker Mallory (Piper Curda), but just as quickly incurs the wrath of the local rich douchebags who are his customers.

On that alone it looks like a long, frustrating summer for Ben, and that’s before he starts noticing strange things afoot with the vacationing family next door. Neighbor Abbie (Zarah Mahler), after bringing home a massive deer carcass, starts going through some unusual changes, such as stalking around the house and changing from cool rocker mom cut-offs and tank tops to flowing gowns that in certain light look splattered with blood. The changes so shake up her young son Dillon (Blane Crockarell) that he hides in Ben’s house, begging him for help. Despite Ben’s best, most well-meaning efforts to keep an eye on things, Dillon and his infant brother both disappear, and when Ben asks Dillon’s father (Kevin Bigley) about it, he chillingly claims to not have any children.

It’s a pleasure when a movie with a plot that can be summed up as “[MOVIE] meets [MOVIE]” actually works, bringing together the best aspects of those movies to create something new and entertaining.

Thanks to a website called Witchypedia (which provides a great sight gag in an otherwise bleak and gruesome movie), Ben discovers that Abbie has been possessed by a witch that dines on human flesh, preferably the kind found on young children. While Ben tries to find out what happened to Dillon and the baby, Abbie is on to him as well, and starts a campaign of body jumping terror that spreads to Ben’s household, and beyond.

It’s a pleasure when a movie with a plot that can be summed up as “[MOVIE] meets [MOVIE]” actually works, bringing together the best aspects of those movies to create something new and entertaining. The Wretched is Rear Window meets The Witch, with a side order of body horror, and somehow it blends together seamlessly. Moreover, the twists writer-directors Brett and Drew Pierce added to it, such as the witch casting a particularly malicious spell that causes the children she kidnaps and eats to be forgotten by their families, make some well-worn tropes feel fresh and different. It offers an unexpected mix of familiar horror comfort food, and the unsettling sense that anything could happen, which exhibits itself in a third act reveal you likely won’t see coming.

If The Wretched stumbles anywhere, it’s the subplot in which Ben degrades himself while trying to win the attention of the snobby rich girl he briefly lusts after, rather than the spunky working class girl right in front of him. It’s a bit of forced conflict in a movie that doesn’t need it, and is thankfully dropped less than halfway through the movie. There’s nothing wrong (and certainly nothing new) about combining horror with coming of age, a la Stranger Things, but here, at a tightly paced ninety minutes, it simply isn’t needed. It’s far more interesting (and creepy) to watch the Abbie-thing try to figure out how to wear her human disguise.

Much like S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk, the sound design does a lot of the heavy lifting in The Wretched. Watch it with headphones, so you don’t miss a single gurgle, squish or crunch. It enhances the malevolent fairy tale tone that the Pierce Brothers successfully maintain, in which little children are led away to their doom by the voices of their own mothers. The flesh-eating witch is not given a name (other than being described as a “dark mother”), and we’re not given any clumsy exposition about her backstory. It isn’t necessary. She’s a monster who drags her prey into a hole underneath a nightmarish gnarled tree, and that’s enough. The fact that she doesn’t have a name, or an origin, somehow makes it even scarier.

The Wretched is available on VOD starting May 1st.

The Wretched Trailer:

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