Ben’s (John-Paul Howard) summer has started out on the wrong foot: His parents are in the middle of a separation that’s calcifying into a divorce, and he’s been sent to live with his father, Liam (Jamison Jones), for the season, working at the local marina in lakeside Michigan and taking shit from hyper-privileged brats. He also has the attention and affections of cool girl Mallory (Piper Curda), and the couple renting the house next door to his dad’s leave the light on when they screw, so it’s not all bad, except for the ancient flesh-eating witch lurking in the woods.
Save for minor details like smartphones and Google image searches, Brett and Drew T. Pierce’s The Wretched could be mistaken for an unseen 1990s flick dug up like a lost relic of its era. The film shares in common DNA with classics like The Faculty, in which wolves skulk among the herd and only the kids are open-minded enough to realize it, but The Wretched doesn’t fetishize its cultural touchstones, or function only as genre nostalgia. It’s an honest to goodness real movie with a mind of its own; practical FX work and creature design help, too, as essential to what distinguishes The Wretched from its influences as the Pierce brothers’ writing.
They build tension and avoid playing coy: Something sinister is in the woods, they let their viewers know upfront, and they have a blast dropping clues and hints for Ben to decipher while Liam loses himself in a relationship with his new girlfriend, Sara (Azie Tesfai). Abbie (Zarah Mahler), for instance, their temporary neighbor, starts acting real weird, walking about with a thousand-yard stare and spending an inordinate amount of time in her vacation home’s cellar. She isn’t Abbie, of course; Abbie, in short order, gets devoured in the dead of the night by a hag that noshes on its prey then dons their skin and pretends to be them. Then it eats its prey’s children and wipes away every trace of their existence. Then it moves on to the next family, like, say, Ben’s or Mallory’s.
The inevitable doom Ben sniffs out and then frantically fights to avoid mingles with the trappings of teenage boyhood, and so The Wretched looks for ways to balance horror with coming-of-age comedy. He like-likes Mallory, she like-likes him, the spoiled rich kids pick on him and interfere with their budding relationship any chance they can: So it goes. The film’s humanity and humor come from Howard and Curda, who carry the scenes between the terror with bright-burning chemistry. They’re a terrific pair. Howard plays Ben as a heartsick sweetie-pie, while Curda brings a relaxed attitude and sharp wit to Mallory, each complimenting the other with their opposing characteristics. But it’s up to Howard to manage the monster-wrangling against the increasingly frustrated Liam’s wishes.
And what monster-wrangling the Pierces have conjured. The hag, referred to in brief as a slipskin, has a pronounced hair lip, crackles and quivers like The Grudge’s Kayako Saeki when it’s its own skin, wails like a banshee, and has no qualms eating babies, children or adults. It’s a perfectly grotesque thing that goes “bump” in the night and a great antagonist for a kid caught in a parental split. The slipskin erases families as surely as dissolving a marriage, only the results are more permanent and considerably bloodier.
The Wretched’s gore quotient likely will fall on the low side for splatter addicts, but the film understands when viscera is called for and when withholding is better. Its best scares tend to involve a glance into the darkness, where nothing should be but in which evil lurks, or through binoculars, which throws the malevolent presence lingering at The Wretched’s edges into sharp relief.
Don’t mistake the emphasis on mood over graphic violence as a sign of pretense. This is fun horror; not a minute goes by where the Pierces slip into self-seriousness. Which isn’t to say that The Wretched doesn’t take itself seriously, because the movie can go to gross places and brings appropriate sobriety to sequences of little kids being consumed by the slimy beldam posing as their mother. The Pierce brothers’ prevailing tone is “haunted house ride”: Even at its most gruesome, The Wretched stays light on its toes.
Directors: Brett Pierce, Drew T. Pierce
Writers: Brett Pierce, Drew T. Pierce
Starring: John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Jamison Jones, Zarah Mahler, Azie Tesfai, Kevin Bigley, Blane Crockarell, Ja’layah Washington
Release Date: May 1, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.