Friday, May 01, 2020

The Pierce Brothers’ The Wretched

It is summer vacation—prime time for slashers. However, a sullen teen working at a marina will face a danger that is earthier and more supernatural and pagan in nature. Of course, he still has the universal teen problems relating to girls and his family, but he also suspects some kind of forest entity is preying on the summer renters next door in the Pierce Brothers’ The Wretched, which releases today at select drive-ins and on VOD platforms.

Ben’s parents are divorcing and he is not so subtly siding with his mother, so he is anticipating spending summer vacation working for his marina-managing father Liam like it is root-canal. To make matters even more awkward, he soon discovers the old man is already dating a co-worker. Hanging out by the lake might sound like a cool summer job, but Ben is keenly aware of his “townie” status. He even ruins a promising flirtation with Mallory, a cool co-worker.

As if his teen alienation were not bad enough, Ben starts noticing strange behavior next door. One night, he returns to Liam’s house, finding the neighbors’ six-ish year-old son Dillon shivering in fright of his mother. Eventually, his father collects him, but the following day Dillon has disappeared and his father seems to have no memory of him. With the help of the internet, Ben soon concludes an ancient tree-witch has gotten its claws into the next-door family. Unfortunately, it also knows that he knows.

Wretched never tries to get to fancy, but it doesn’t need to, because the Pierces so effectively balance elements from the pagan and randy teen horror traditions. Without question, the best parts of the film involve Ben’s relationship with Mallory. It would be overstating matters to directly compare The Wretched to WarGames or Rear Window (seriously, no), but you can see how those films might have influenced their scenes together, which is definitely something.

John-Paul Howard is so believable as Ben, it is almost empathically painful to watch. Piper Curda (a survivor of the Disney TV factory) is really terrific as Mallory, as well. Her performance is funny and dynamic, suggesting she could a grown-up genre star of the future. Jamison Jones also brings out greater human dimensions in Liam than we usually see in angsty teen horror parents.

This is a surprising film in many ways, including a big, ambitious twist that works shockingly well. In fact, The Wretched is cleverly executed from start to finish (except for the tacked-on standard issue horror movie denouement). The engaging cast also really sells both the supernatural stuff and the teen drama. Very highly recommended for horror fans, The Wretched opens today (5/1) at the Jesup, Sparta, Starlight, Ocala, Mission Tiki, and West Wind Glendale & Sacramento drive-ins and releases day-and-date on VOD.