Ben (John-Paul Howard) is experiencing growing pains not unlike many his age. His parents are finalizing their divorce, he’s spending the summer with dad Liam (Jamison James), and he’s taken a seasonal gig working on the docks. He catches wind of strange things happening in their neighbor’s house, as Abbie (Zarah Mahler), Ty (Kevin Bigley), and their son Dillon (Blane Crockarell) haven’t quite been themselves lately. With the help of friend and coworker Mallory (Piper Curda), Ben uncovers a mystery steeped in witchcraft and possession, which might explain the folks next door and their strange behaviors. What lurks in the woods is stranger than the denizens of the docks, and the truth may be stranger still.
Oftentimes, when a movie tries to be too much, when it tries to do too much at once, the end result will suffer. The Wretched is an exception to this, as it draws on so much and brings it together without becoming too saturated for its own good. In my screening, I noted elements of Hitchcock, namely a callback to the classic Rear Window, perhaps the best instance of “perception does not equal reality.” Other references I noted included Star Wars (ironically, this review was written on May 4th) and the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I’ll leave you to pick up on what else the brothers Pierce (Deadheads, Dead/Undead) have put down.
As a character, Ben was not an instantly likeable guy. He’s troubled, and given his situation, who wouldn’t be? That in mind, some of his choices and actions in the first act, namely the gas station honor system scene, are less than savory. On one hand, this could be seen as something to lead to character growth by film’s end. On the other hand, it made me earn faith in the protagonist, and perhaps made me do so more than anticipated. When the chips are on the table, however, it does lead to an interesting development; that is, his less than honest nature gets him in trouble, making the unraveling in the final act that much more impactful. On my first viewing, Ben left a bad taste in my mouth as a character, but upon further reflection, this may been exactly what was intended, and if so, points to the writers for that.
A major talking point for this film has been the practical effects, and why would they not be? The on-screen gore isn’t over-the-top, but when it does appear, it makes an impact, and the looks of the injuries and fatal blows help make it so. Erik Porn (what a name) and his team deserve high praise, especially for a final act scene which Porn himself describes as “old school Freddy in Nightmare 2 fashion.” Another noteworthy hail for gore effects goes to the cold open, which drew an out-loud “what the fuck?!” from yours truly. On the subject, the entirety of the cold open was a fun time, and more than accomplished what a cold open should: get the viewer excited about the tale ahead.
While not quite a game-changing, jaw-dropping affair, The Wretched is a damn fun time. Between its character development, the practical effects, and the coming-of-age tale at its center, it accomplishes much in its roughly ninety minutes. It neither overstays its welcome nor makes an Irish exit before anyone notices it’s gone. What scares and grossness exists is neither cheap nor overdone. It’s a more than serviceable horror, going a step beyond the age-old yarn of “so-so teen is changed by weird things in the neighbor’s house.”
The Wretched is available now on VOD and at select drive-ins nationwide, via IFC Midnight.