While his parents work out their divorce, Ben (John-Paul Howard) is spending the summer with his dad (Jamison Jones). When Dillon (Blane Crockarell), the kid next door who he’s been looking out for at his Dad’s marina, disappears and nobody else seems to remember him, Ben becomes convinced that Dillon’s mother Abbie (Zarah Mahler) is a witch.
Writing and directing team The Pierce Brothers throw plenty of ideas and sub-genres into The Wretched. There are folk horror elements and iconography at play, suggestions of possession, a marina set teen movie with Ben connecting with local girl Mallory (Piper Curda) and even a Rear Window/Disturbia influence as Ben spies on his neighbours after becoming suspicious of them. Unfortunately, the film often ends up playing as bitty as that list of influences reads.
The individual elements are mostly well done as far as they go. The folk horror portion throws up some creepy iconography, like a possessed woman in an animal skull mask and the symbol that alerts us to the witch. It also includes one of the film’s very best moments; a skin shedding/birth effect which is admirably gross and clearly practical. The possession element is solidly acted and the scenes of Dillon’s parents forgetting that their child existed and of Mallory doing the same in regard to her younger sister, familiar as they are, are effectively chilling. The less effective moments come from the teen movie and Rear Window strands, which are both entirely generic. The marina scenes in particular struggle to get us invested in the connection between Ben and Mallory.
The Pierce Brothers clearly have some talent. The Wretched isn’t at all original, but it’s well made; the directors and DP Conor Murphy get the best out of the fairly generic imagery, and the performances are fine all round. The first half of the film works best, with the progression of Abbie’s character nicely done, not letting the monster take hold immediately. Most pleasingly, and unlike a lot of US horror of its ilk, it’s not entirely built out of predictable jump scares. There is definitely a frustration about watching it though, because it feels like it’s a couple of rewrites from being a lot more engaging. If the more character driven bits were more detailed, if we were able to be more invested in Ben and Mallory (whether as friends or a potential couple), the stakes would be much higher.
The main problem is that the various elements don’t knit together that well and it often feels as though we are cutting from one movie to another as much as from one scene to the next. There are also elements here that simply aren’t that well seeded. We discover late in the first act that Ben has been going off the rails a bit, but this only comes up as is convenient to the plot, and leaning into it more could have lent more urgency to the second act and left us as an audience more conflicted about what to believe. A late twist also suffers from this issue, the film shows us some key moments again, trying to make it track, but those scenes don’t echo in the disorienting way it wants them to.
The final grade below is perhaps erring on the harsh side (we don’t do half stars). There are things to recommend here, elements that work well, but the film as a whole doesn’t come together and that means that even some of its better elements fall flat.