The Wretched comes from sibling directors Brett and Drew T. Pierce, making their second feature after 2011 zombie comedy Deadheads.
Ben (John-Paul Howard) goes to stay with his father, Liam (Jamison Jones), in the small country town where he has relocated following divorce proceedings. He gets a job at the local marina, where he meets Mallory (Piper Curda) and the two soon become close. Meanwhile, Ben begins to notice strange things happening in his neighbourhood and comes to the conclusion that his neighbour, Abbie (Zarah Mahler), has been possessed by a forest witch who preys on children.
Plot wise, it’s hard to get away from the fact that The Wretched is basically Fright Night, with a different hat on. But we must acknowledge the sub-genre of ‘neighbourhoods in peril’ is fairly limited in scope. There really isn’t much more to it than monster-moves-next-door, so ultimately it’s what you do with it that counts; and while The Wretched also riffs a little bit on Rear Window, Kill List and Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, it acquits itself quite nicely. It’s also hard to imagine The Wretched was not, at least in part, inspired by Scott Snyder and Jock’s comic book series Wytches, wherein a coven of feral witches, from an ancient forest, terrorise a small town.
Nevertheless, The Wretched’s strongest asset is in this creature concept and mythology. This is not your clichéd broomstick and cauldron witch. This is an ancient, feral creature from the depths of the earth, living in trees and amongst root systems. How 30 Days of Night made its vampires animalistic and ferocious, The Wretched has done the same with its witch, giving it a cryptozoological makeover.
The excellent effects work plays a large part in this. The witch’s introduction being a particular highlight, as it crawls from the belly of a deceased animal in a disgusting, yet impressive birth scene. Devin Burrows’ impressive, edgy, string-heavy score also winds the tension up, and The Wretched still manages to have a few tricks up its sleeve, including some well executed and unforeseen plot developments.
Performance wise, we’re never quite sold on Ben as the outsider, not least because John-Paul Howard looks like he’s the ‘jock’ rather than the ‘nerd’. It’s also not helped by the fact Ben’s run-ins with the locals are a little underdeveloped. They arise periodically, with little by way of resolution or, dare I say it, point. But beyond that, both John-Paul Howard and Piper Curda are very good and their chemistry works well. Zarah Mahler is also worthy of mention as Abbie, her otherworldly performance bringing to mind Meg Tilly in Abel Ferrara’s Bodysnatchers – sinister yet vacant at the same time.
While it may wear its influences a little too proudly, The Wretched is still an effective indie horror tale that manages to tap into some primal fears, hit you with a couple of left-field surprises and make itself highly watchable.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★✩✩
‘The Wretched’ is currently on a limited cinema release and in the Foxtel Store until 18 July, ahead of a wider On-Demand release from 2 September.