The Wretched, the 2019 horror film from writing/directing team Brett and Drew T. Pierce (billed as The Pierce Brothers), is something of an aesthetic throwback to the horror films of the late 1990s and early 2000s, with a little Fright Night thrown into the mix. It relies heavily on the “you have to believe me!” trope, but that’s okay. It’s a great trick horror filmmakers use to make an audience root for the main characters. We see the same things the protagonists see, so it’s frustrating to us, as much as the characters, when authority figures in the movie fail to do anything about the scary stuff and save the town.
The Wretched follows teenaged misfit Ben (John-Paul Howard). He recently got caught stealing opiates from a neighbor’s medicine cabinet, and part of his punishment is being sent off to northern Michigan for the summer to work with his father at a marina. (The film was shot in and around Omena and Northport, Michigan.)
So, part of the story of Ben being caught is that he wasn’t just riffling through his neighbor’s medicine cabinet while he was there as an invited guest. He broke into their house while the neighbors were away, they came home, then Ben broke his arm falling out of a window trying to get away. This is felony crime. And the law was involved. And his punishment is to spend the summer hanging out on Lake Michigan. You know, in many ways, this is the most realistic part of the film. But enough of that.
From an earlier intro scene, viewers will have a clue to what kind of bad happenings Ben is about to be involved in, and it has nothing to with his little ‘incident.’ That was just backstory, and there were any number of other ways the Pierces could have gone.
Ben’s life is complicated more by the fact that his parents are divorced. His dad, Liam (Jamison Jones), is also seeing someone, Sara (Azie Tesfai), whom Liam does not take a shine to.
Meanwhile, the house next door to Liam’s is a summer rental, currently occupied by husband and wife Ty and Abbie (Kevin Bigley and Zarah Mahler); their son, Dillon (Blane Crockarell); and infant child. It’s all set up to be a nice summer on the lake. But, Abbie and her family become the target of the Wretch (Madelynn Stuenkel) — a humanoid woodlands creature that the internet suggests is some kind of witch. There is occult stuff going on in this flick surrounding the Wretch, but everything is left nicely ambiguous. What viewers will know, early on, is that the Wretch is a monster. The first we see of it, it’s eating a child.
And here we reach one of those moments in film criticism when I have to make a decision about how much to spoil for readers. So, I’ll make it simple. This is a very good popcorn horror flick — a wonderful getaway. It’s not too gory or too scary, and finds a sweet spot that regular movie fans, not just us horror junkies, should like. Its frights are well-done, and while they are telegraphed for the horror movie veteran, they’ll make your date leap. If one needs to know more plot, then read on.
The Wretch sneaks into Ty and Abbie’s house one dark night and kills Abbie. It then climbs into her and wears her skin like a suit. And this isn’t like Vincent D’Onofrio in Men in Black. Although not perfect, Abbie’s skin is a much better fit. The Pierces had a bunch of options on where to take the film here, as well. Audiences might most expect the Wretch to imitate Abbie perfectly, and the movie becomes a game of cat and mouse. It does some of that, but the Pierces decided not to have the Wretch be a spot-on mimic. I like this choice, as, supernatural as all of this is, it seems more believable that a monster that lives under a tree wouldn’t be able to imitate a person to the extent that family members wouldn’t notice something was off. Even Ben, who never says a word to Abbie before she is replaced, picks up on what’s wrong. His dad doesn’t, though, so it’s up to Liam to stop the Wretch in the third act.
The special effects team did good work. I’m sure they prepared far more gore than what appeared in the final cut, but what was left in was nicely gross, and not used to excess. In fact, I think regular audiences could handle a little more.
The Pierces showed decent storytelling skill and excellent pace for guys who don’t get the opportunity to direct much (their last film, also their debut, was released in 2011). The film moves along steadily, taking the time to set up the plot. There’s no rushing, and the only shortcuts the Pierces took were the one-dimensionality of the characters.
The cast did a decent job for the Pierces. Howard wasn’t the best, but he never felt wrong for the role. Overall, the cast fit the film. It’s a good movie, not a great film. The performances were good, but not great.
The Wretched is polished and clean. It hits familiar horror notes one after another but hits them well, and then has an inventive reveal at the climax. I thought it was a fine way to kill an hour and a half.