COVID-19’s wide-spread impact has imposed a temporary pause for the theatrical business model, with most 2020 releases reluctantly being pushed back (No Time to Die and Fast 9) or released via Video On Demand services (The King of Staten Island and Trolls: World Tour). Amidst these closures, indie stalwart IFC generated a welcomed surprise with their release of The Wretched, which morphed into a drive-in staple since its May debut (its earned 1.4 million at the US box office in addition to VOD sales). Fitting the midnight genre movie sensibility to a tee, this admirable writing/directorial return for Brett and Drew Pierce can’t quite convey an original, well-rounded experience.
The Wretched follows Ben (John-Paul Howard) a troubled teenager spending the summer with his father (Jamison Jones) after his parent’s divorce. While encountering the familiarity of summer coming-of-age suburbia, Ben soon discovers all is not as it seems when a possessive witch commandeers his next-door neighbors.
Wearing its low-rent genre aspirations on its sleeve, Brett and Drew Pierce approach their familiar narrative framework with aplomb craftsmanship. Drawing inspirations from cult 80s horror pictures like Fright Night and The Thing, the two cleverly cast a cloud of unease from the first frame, with their precise and still framing oozing with tension. Devin Burrows’ orchestral score culminates the suspenseful build-up, playing into the horrific reveals with shock and exhilaration.
Making the most out of their shoestring budget, the Pierces devise some genuinely accomplished horror setpieces. It’s refreshing to see low-budget filmmakers rely more on creative designs and practical ingenuity than substandard CGI, holding their cards close to their chest while constructing a sense of intrigue. After offering mere glimpses at the witch’s design, the duo release a breathless onslaught of well-constructed scares with the third act, dumping buckets of bloodshed while creating a genuine sense of stakes.
The Wretched finds its comfort zone embracing macabre moments, but struggles mightily to find a rhythm outside its eerie set pieces. The unheralded cast hold their own (Piper Curda makes a strong impression as Ben’s bubbly friend), but the Pierces’ barebones script relies solely on familiar archetypes. The summer suburbia angle feels contrived in its schematic design, confusing its nostalgic pastiche for a sense of personality. The Pierces also waste a significant opportunity with their lackluster world-building, relying on a few skimpy asides to construct their central spiritual entity.
Perhaps most frustrating is The Wretched’s inability to engage with its thematically-promising set-up. A witch who makes people forget about their children/siblings could have cleverly portrayed a loss of innocence, acting as an ideal backdrop for Ben’s coming of age journey. However, there’s little interest in exploring the dark depths of this conceit, with offhand mentions at Ben’s drug usage and the fate of his neighbors merely serving as window dressing for the narrative
The Wretched‘s old-school approach should please genre enthusiasts, but its trope-heavy framework derails Brett and Drew Pierce’s promising low-budget craftsmanship.
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