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“The Wretched” Film Review

A teen suspects his neighbor is possessed by a witch in “The Wretched,” the new horror film written and directed by the Pierce Brothers. A cross between “The Evil Dead,” “The Blair Witch Project” and “Rear Window,” the movie builds a solid foundation for a tense, creepy, gory thriller, but rarely rises to fulfill its potential.

Ben (John-Paul Howard) is staying at his father’s (Jamison Jones) harborside home for the summer. It’s a difficult time: His parents are on the brink of divorce; his arm’s in a cast; he’s target numero uno for the rich meathead bully. But wait, there’s more! His neighbor Abbie (Zarah Mahler) is acting strange, the kind of strange marked by cracking bones and menacing silhouettes. Using his trusty binoculars, Ben puts on his sleuthing cap to uncover what dark secret escaped the woods and is festering next door.

Horror is no stranger to being the outlet through which filmmakers tackle their own insecurities — I think about “Get Out” and its critique of the “post-racial lie” of Obama’s America or “The Babadook” and its portrayal of anxiety. If I reach, I can see how this story about a witch hunting children can extend to the emotional turmoils of children of divorce. But that’s a large reach for a movie that’s otherwise spread thin. In one corner, it’s a coming-of-age drama. In the other, it’s a paranoid mystery. In another, it’s a supernatural effects picture. For a 95-minute movie, it’s a lot to juggle.

(Sidebar: am I the only one who misses the creepy-elder-who-informs-our-hero-of-the-dark-mythology trope? This exposition dump has been replaced in recent years with a Google search montage and it just…lacks personality.)

The Pierce Brothers and cinematographer Conor Murphy try a “less is more” approach with “The Wretched.” Often, the movie is encased in darkness. Any spot of light could reveal the evil and at points, this minimalism drives up the tension. The negative space behind anyone’s shoulder could be where the evil’s hiding. When looking through Ben’s binoculars, the limited frame gives little room to hide, to look away from anyone that could be looking back. Where the movie’s other nods to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” can be distracting, this particular homage is effectively baked into the story.

The Wretched
Photo credit: IFC

However, minimalism is a double-edged sword. I found myself resetting the brightness on my TV halfway through because at times, the shadows were impenetrable. It’s hard to be properly scared when I have little idea what is attacking whom and where they are. Near the end of the movie, the film employs more claustrophobic, handheld camera work that was too shaky and rapidly cut for me to appreciate what was happening. It’s hard to be terrified when I have to spread that terror across a multitude of shots in a matter of minutes.

The cast is hit-or-miss. I appreciate Howard’s awkward yet tender teen boy, Mahler’s menace and contorted body language. However, the characters are (again) spread so thin, they often don’t get a chance to shine. That is, except for Piper Curda, who plays Ben’s right-hand woman, Mallory. Like the other characters, she isn’t there for much more than horror buddy backup, but there’s a bubbliness, a magnetism to her performance that breathes life into the movie. Curda’s playful, cheeky, sly: the kind of performance needed for an homage to “The Evil Dead.”

I’ll end on the movie’s best note, which is hands-down, the FX makeup. If you watch this, I think you’ll agree there’s a showstopper of an effect in one scene hearkening back to everything I love about the work from the likes of Mark Shostrom (“Evil Dead II”) or Tom Savini (“Dawn of the Dead”). Grotesque and gnarly, this fits in with the ‘70s and ‘80s classics I love dearly. 

The Wretched
Photo credit: IFC

Ultimately, this admiration for the films before it is why, despite the issues, I can still recommend “The Wretched” as a B-movie for a Saturday afternoon matinee. This isn’t a cynical exercise; I think there are nuggets of gold here. I just also think it’s too rough around the edges to escape the shadows of its influences. If you go in just wanting some spooky retro fun, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

“The Wretched” is now available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.

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Featured photo credit: IFC

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