Synopsis: A defiant teenage boy, struggling with his parent’s imminent divorce, faces off with a thousand year-old witch, who is living beneath the skin of and posing as the woman next door.
Stars: John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Jamison Jones, Azie Tesfai, Zarah Mahler, Kevin Bigley
Director: Brett Pierce, Drew T. Pierce
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: It was all the way back in 1991 when I was first introduced to the novels of Christopher Pike with the classic, Whisper of Death. The pseudonym of Kevin Christopher McFadden, writing as Pike he gave teens a boatload of thrills tinged with some mature themes and I just couldn’t get enough of them. Pike is going to have a bit of a resurgence now that it’s been announced super-hot director Mike Flanagan (Doctor Sleep) is adapting his novel The Midnight Club (and interweaving a few others) into a new series for Netflix. I also couldn’t quite get Pike’s prose out of my mind while watching The Wretched, a new indie horror flick released on streaming that’s better than you think even if it plays like a really strong YA novel adaptation.
Sent to live with his dad in a sleepy resort town on the coast of Michigan for the summer after a bit of wild teenage fun got out of hand (and left him in a cast), Ben (John-Paul Howard, Hell or High Water) is all angst and over-it attitude. However, he starts to come around when he is coaxed out of his shell by Mallory (Piper Curda), a co-worker at the marina his dad oversees. The fun doesn’t last long, though, because Ben’s neighbors with two small children are starting to act funny…perhaps it’s because of the grotesque creature we saw crawl out of a deer carcass and hide in their basement or the strange markings on their front porch. When their children vanish and no one claims to remember them, Ben becomes convinced something strange is happening…and it all seems to center on a tree in the woods that hides a terrifying creature.
There’s a lot of good stuff going on in The Wretched, starting with a spooky prologue set 35 years ago and writer/directors Brett and Drew Pierce keep things moving at a decent clip for the first hour or so. While the territory is familiar with no one believing the already troubled teenager, there’s a particular comfort in watching it play out so by-the-numbers. Maybe it’s because the cast is so benignly appealing and the production values are a step-up from the normal indie schlock-fest. The make-up effects (by a dude named Erik Porn, no joke) are aces and much of the work is practical with CGI used sparingly, at least as far as I could tell. Genre fans will have fun picking out the influences on hand, from Rear Window to Fright Night to Invasion of the Body Snatchers…heck, even to William Friedkin’s much maligned 1990 movie The Guardian…but instead of leaving feeling that the movie lifted the best bits I got the impression the filmmakers had a deep affinity for those movies they wanted to emulate and they succeed with that.
Where The Wretched gets into some trouble is not being able to connect the dots to its ideas at the end of the day. Like that spooky prologue I mentioned before. It sets a nice tone but unfortunately (and this isn’t a total spoiler) it doesn’t truly come back in a meaningful way later in the film. Even the most strident of television movies would have at least find a way to bring that back but the Pierce brothers seem to have forgotten about furthering their mythology about whatever wicked presence has long been feeding in the area. Also, I have to say the doozy of a ending didn’t work for me…like, at all. It’s one of those rug-pulling twists that could have worked but it doesn’t have the logic (or running time) to back it up.
Even if it falters toward the end, I found The Wretched be a far above average entry in the genre film that pops up on my recommended list. It’s scary but not aggressively so, one of those weeknight watches you won’t feel too bad about spending time with