Teenage Ben is struggling with his parents’ divorce, but life is about to get a whole lot gnarlier when he discovers that the woman living next door to his dad’s house is not what she appears.
Directors and writers Brett Pierce and Drew T. Pierce begin The Wretched with great promise: a memorable opening shot dramatically contrasts the bright colors of children’s belongings with the drab mud on which they lay scattered, while rain pelts down and an 80s pop song plays with eerie faintness. This prologue, set 35 years before the film’s present, continues to effectively ratchet the tension as a babysitter named Megan enters the house of the Gambels and soon realizes that something is off. She calls her mom, a good move, but despite some clear indications of trouble in the household—the phone was off the hook, the flowers in a vase are wilted—Megan makes the crucial mistake of Going Into the Basement. Let’s just say that after that she won’t be needing a lot of references.
The story then jumps to “5 days ago” and we’re introduced to our adolescent protagonist, Ben (likeably played by John-Paul Howard) and his father Liam (Jamison Jones, whom I distractingly kept thinking was somehow Colin Ferguson). Liam is living in a quaint coastal town and Ben, his arm in a cast from an unruly incident in which he attempted to steal Vicodin from his neighbors, is going to heal and help out with his dad’s small marina business. We learn that Liam is sweet but misguided because he gets Ben a cheap bicycle with a large basket so that he can get around town, and we are shown that Liam is behind the times because he doesn’t know what an HDMI port is. I think more screenwriters should include dialogue about HDMI ports in their movies, since it’ll make them easier to date in the future.
Meanwhile, all is not well at the neighbor’s house. Little Dillon strays from his Mom while they’re out in the woods and has a strange encounter with a tree that beckons to him in first inviting and then downright rude whispers. His mom, Abbie, hits a buck on the drive back home, and decides to bring it with so that they can make use of its meat. Unbeknownst to her, the same evil being that dispatched Megan in the prologue is inside the buck. Soon one of Abbie’s kids falls victim to it, and then Abbie herself is taken over by the creature.
It doesn’t take long for Ben, who has now befriended local girl Mallory (a charismatic performance by Piper Curda), to figure out that something is Seriously Wrong with Abbie, and that everyone seems to have forgotten that Dillon ever existed. Reviewers have rightly referenced Tom Holland’s Fright Night (1985) as well as D. J. Caruso’s Disturbia (2007) in connection with The Wretched, and the movie’s setup once Ben becomes suspicious of Abbie certainly justifies those comparisons. The Outer Limits episode “Something About Harry” (starring Judd Nelson in the equivalent of the Abbie role, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the boy no one believes) also comes to mind. A number of flicks involving bodily possession, starting with Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), likewise feed this narrative cauldron. And that’s what this movie turns out to be, a thin stew with the occasional burst of savory flavor—as when, for instance, we see the creature’s spindly fingers reaching into a baby’s crib through cam footage—, but ultimately lacking in sensory provocation or real nourishment.
The first act, as various character dynamics are established and we’re teased about the witch’s abilities and lore (the obligatory online search montage with Mallory’s comment about “Witchipedia” is cute), is the film’s most effective. The sound design of the witch herself, though it gets over-used in the film’s last two acts, is the movie’s most disturbing production element. The cinematography, editing, and music service the story without particularly enhancing it. A third-act family twist strains credulity and also doesn’t have any payoff beyond its immediate shock value. Combining the evil-next-door trope with the body mimicry subgenre is a neat idea, but I wish the film had worked harder to be unnerving and to find out what it wanted to say about these things. It’s fun to marvel and gawk at various set pieces, but in the end, like the witch’s tree, a sense of hollowness pervades.
Presumably the man in the prologue that traps Megan in the basement and essentially feeds her to the witch had been mind-controlled by her. The cop who almost drowns Ben and then shoots a dog and himself rather than killing Ben is clearly under her influence too. This raises the question of the witch’s abilities—if she can exert such a tenacious hold at a distance, why hasn’t Ben succumbed long ago, and how would anyone ever see through her guise? This gets to the heart of one of the film’s problems: what makes Ben special? In Fright Night it was Charley Brewster’s bona fide expertise on horror movies that gave him special insight into his neighbors’ behavior. The only character who truly comes alive in The Wretched is Mallory, and I wish the movie had been about her and her experiences.
Coming back to the witch’s powers, other questions remain unanswered, and they hurt our suspension of disbelief. Flowers around her die—but the vegetation in the forest around the suspicious tree that Dillon first saw seemed fine. Why did the ears of Abbie’s husband bleed when the witch possessed his will, but no one else seemed to have the same issue? What are the witch’s feeding needs, exactly? It seems toddlers are her favorites, but Megan was clearly a young adult, so what really is the cutoff here? The film’s events suggest a rapid escalation to the witch’s hunger—driven by what? Given this rate of consumption, how did the witch sustain herself during the previous centuries? How does the triangle symbol drive the plot?
The prologue, with Megan’s mom on the phone repeatedly questioning her about her whereabouts and whether she’s sneaking around with her boyfriend, suggests that deceit and illicit relationships could be one of the film’s themes. Despite the occasional flirtation with this idea, nothing comes of it. Instead, the script relies heavily on standard teen alienation beats: Ben’s parents are getting divorced, he’s pranked by an attractive girl, called “midget dick” by the neighborhood’s cool crew, disbelieved about Abbie, and so on. Nothing wrong with any of this, but it’s a shame that Brett Pierce and Drew T. Pierce don’t stop to re-examine or try to subvert what by now feel like storytelling conventions rather than moments of genuine character development.
The notion that a witch might yield a skill that causes people to forget about children is an intriguing one, and could serve as a powerful metaphor for the gulf between youth and adulthood, and the difficulty of maintaining continuity with who we used to be (It: Chapter Two dealt with this). Alas, the idea isn’t probed with sufficient depth for it to transcend the category of plot device.
What we get instead is a well-crafted but undemanding story that feels like a thriller disguised in horror clothing. As I mentioned earlier, there are science fiction vibes too—the scene, for instance, where the witch-as-Abbie is having sex with her husband recalls a similar shot in Species (1995). And like that film, this one dribbles The Vamp trope around the court but doesn’t consider what might be needed for a three-point shot, let alone a dunk. Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) pushes this material so far that by comparison The Wretched seems not only creatively complacent, but deliberately retrograde. Some viewers will find this deliberate indulgence in nostalgia charming, even comforting. Me, I wish the movie had worked harder to live up to its riveting title. Instead, it’s more like the Mildly Afflicted.