Don’t you hate it when an ancient witch moves in next door, possesses your neighbor, starts stealing children, and no one believes you because they think you’re acting out due to your parents’ messy divorce? Yeah, that sucks. Such is life for Ben (John-Paul Howard), protagonist of writer/director brothers Brett and Drew Pierce’s new horror film, The Wretched.
See, all Ben wants is to work his summer job for his dad, Liam (Jamison Jones), at the marina, hang out with his co-worker/sidekick/love interest Mal (Piper Curda), and be a brooding teen who wants his parents to get back together. But there are bullies in this new small town, his dad is humping some new lady, and then there’s the aforementioned witch who takes over his neighbor, Abbie (Zarah Mahler), which causes all kinds of drama as kids disappear and people forget they ever existed in the first place.
The Wretched plays out a lot like Fright Night. Full of vaguely occult imagery, eerie mood and tone, and all manner of angsty teen terror, there’s a throwback 1980s vibe to the whole thing, which the Pierce brothers mine for solid creeps and scares. As the witch basically wears her victims like a skin suit, there’s also a nice amount of unsettling body horror effects.
While the film follows a tried and true formula, the story injects clever twists and turns to keep things from getting stale. The monster offers up an unusual spin on the traditional witch and possession narratives, and though the divorcing parents aspect of the story is a ho-hum shrug, a crafty script sets up the pieces that ultimately fall into place later in a climactic moment. Let’s just say it pays off in the end.
Ben doesn’t make a particularly compelling main character. We’ve seen this brand of not-actually-that-troubled trouble teen before, and while serviceable, there’s not much charisma to speak of. Everything around him is more interesting than he is, and the film bog down in moments like when a the mean, generically douchey rich kids play a prank on him at a party. It’s the type of cliché teen moment we’ve seen countless times, but doesn’t do anything remotely different from what’s come before.
Curda has fun as Mal, giving Ben flirty, skeptical grief and teasing him as he falls down a witch research rabbit hole—he uses a handy online tool called “Witchipedia.” Mahler and Kevin Bigley play their couple as young, hip parents who vow not to let having kids stop the party—they did go to Burning Man after all—and it’s a fun poke at the “cool parents” stereotype and their desperate quest to remain relevant.
Slick and polished, with enough gore and excellent creature effects to satiate horror fans, much of The Wretched is solid if standard genre fare. While it may not dive to any great psychological depths or explore any new territory, there are surprises to find and definite horror pleasures throughout. It’s not a bad way to kill 90 minutes, not a bad way at all. [Grade: B]