An uneven experience that you should check out for the neat monster at the center of it.
If there’s one movie monster that feels criminally underrepresented in the mainstream lexicon of horror creatures, it has to be the witch. Particularly in the last decade or so, the presence of witches used in true-blue horror films feels like it’s stagnated, especially when looking at how commonplace ghost movies have remained over time, and how ubiquitous zombies were as a pop-culture craze that took over a large part of the 2010s. It’s a little more difficult to come across the witch when browsing horror selections; the only widely embraced witch movies I can think of from the past decade are The Witch and Suspiria, the former having come out 4 years ago at this point and the latter a remake of the 70’s classic. The Wretched has an inherent advantage on its side in focusing on making a genuinely scary film for a type of monster we have a scant supply of straightforward films featuring.
Directed by Brett and Drew T. Pierce, The Wretched follows Ben (John-Paul Howard), an outcast teen who has come to stay with his father who handles the marina in his relaxed town that sits on the waterfront. As he deals with his emotional unrest over his parents’ recent separation, Ben helps his dad work the marina and tries to make friends despite his misfit nature, including co-worker Mallory (Piper Curda), who he of course clearly wants to smooch. Not everything is right in paradise, however, as Ben makes some startling discoveries spying on his next-door neighbors, a mother and father of a young boy who goes missing, much to the nonchalance of his parents. Ben’s snooping gets him wrapped up in a much larger ordeal, acting as an amateur sleuth who quickly finds out he’s in far over his head, and that his neighbors may not be who he thinks.
The Wretched has a heavy emphasis on Ben spying across the way on his neighbors, notably with his binoculars equipped and his reason for looking initially being shallow. It feels more than coincidental just how reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rear Window the imagery is, and Ben’s exploits don’t seem too far away from this being a stab at a straight-up riff of that film, mixed with elements of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and supernatural horror. A bulk of the runtime is more of a genre-hopping mystery film than anything else; a teen detective movie that by turns dips its toes into being a family drama, a coming-of-age movie, and a creature feature. It speaks to a strong sense of tone and direction that nothing ever feels jumbled or like the film is having an identity crisis.
Unfortunately, most of the characters here leave something to be desired. The Wretched hints that it might be trying for that same moral ambiguity found in Rear Window, or even in De Palma’s own version of that movie Body Double, but Ben ultimately ends up being more of a blank slate. The rest of the cast are relegated to similar fates, mostly working as vessels to move the plot along but never able to go much deeper than moving from one point to another. It makes for an experience that isn’t necessarily frustrating or boring, but more just passive as the plot plays out via excellent camerawork and tight editing that’s undercut with surface-level players at the center of it.
The final 20 minutes or so is where the visual effects work does the heavy lifting, an area where the movie shines its brightest. If you take one thing away from The Wretched, it will be the splendid creature design that helps carry it along. From the quick glances we get at her during the build-up, to when she’s revealed in full glory in the climax, it really is some wonderful design for such a small production. The way her body contorts and her bones crack, and the method in which she manipulates citizens of the town make for some truly memorable sequences of terror. Yet another case made for the value of good old practical effects.
Plotwise, the film trips up with a final reveal that plays like it’s meant to be emotionally poignant and shocking but doesn’t justify itself in terms of anything that’s happened up to that point. It’s a completely out-of-left-field twist that left me confused in the moment and even more confused after the fact trying to parse out how it works out with everything that I had seen up to that point. It’s a pretty big swing and an even bigger miss, making the ambiguous final shot of the film even more silly than it may have been otherwise. The strong mystery and horror elements combined with the lacking character work and story beats make for an uneven experience that’s high on intrigue and potential, and falls just short of true gratification; but there’s strong effort here all the same from a pair of filmmakers who clearly have it in them to make something great.