As the end credits to The Wretched, the latest film from directors the Pierce Brothers, best known for 2011’s zombie send up Dead Heads, begin to roll, I’m left with little but the increasingly oppressive realization that I am now, thanks to this movie, 90 minutes closer to my death with precious little to show for it.
This is a feeling that only grows in the days between my screening and my writing, owing to the fact that now I owe a review, which means that my existential dread over the incessant tick tock tick tock of my time in life is deepened by the fact that I must now must spend even more of those precious few moments I’ve been granted thinking about and considering this movie even more. By my estimation, by the time this review is written, I will have spent anywhere between two-and-a-half and three hours of my life on The Wretched which feels more and more like a robbery with every word I type.
The Wretched is the kind of movie that mistakes tropes for characters, clichés for plot, and creature effects for horror. I can almost hear the rejoinders of, “You just didn’t get it,” from fans of low brow horror that exists for its own sake, to which I might reply, “There’s nothing to get.” This is a film that learned the wrong lessons from the movies that came before it and, as a result, stumbles through its mishmash of influences in paint-by-numbers fashion towards one of the most insipid twists and inane endings in recent memory.
As it exists, The Wretched serves as a fascinating case study for ruining a solid premise and, to be totally fair, great creature design with hackneyed writing and directing and uninspired performances. I suppose an argument can, and most likely will, be made that this was what the Pierce Brothers aspired to and that this was intended to be a throwback to campy horror classics of yore. I will concede that those aspirations may be present but that is only half the battle. Unlike the classic films on which it riffs, The Wretched is so devoid of charm, absent of originality, and wholly without terror.
Its plot involves a young boy, Ben (John-Paul Howard), going to spend his summer with his newly divorced father (Jamison Jones), in a small lakeside town. Meanwhile, his father’s neighbor, Abbie (Zarah Mahler), and her son Dillon (Blane Crockarell) accidentally awaken an ancient witch in the woods, who quickly takes possession of Abbie and begins attacking and eating the children of the small community, taking the memories of her victims away from their loved ones in the process. Now, it is up to Ben and his new friend Mallory (Piper Curda) to unravel the spell and end the witch’s reign once and for all.
The witch as villain has seen something of a renaissance lately thanks to films like The Witch and Suspiria. Largely, I am here for this. The folkloric interpretation of witches is rife with material to mine and has a place in our collective psyche as a source of great terror of the unknown. In popular culture, the witch is one who trades their soul for power—an apt metaphor for the fears of our day—and as such forces us to consider what cost is worth the price of our self.
The Wretched, however, eschews any semblance of nuance or metaphor for the benefit of another dime a dozen horror film with another dime a dozen villain who is wholly without motivation or intrigue beyond her existence. At no point does the film offer any but the most face value of considerations about itself. This witch is scary because the film tells you its scary, and nothing more.
The whole film is laced with a tiring familiarity that offers little surprise and fewer chills. Witness how freakily the witch moves (and try not to consider how it moves in the exact same inhuman fashion that horror movies have employed for at least a decade)! Cower at the growing body count (never mind that the characterization is so non-existent that most of the dead achieve the same thing as most of the living, which is to say nothing)! The Wretched seems to think that its mere existence is justification enough and at no point does it bother putting in the work. It’s horror at its laziest and most uninspired.
Any points the film does get comes from the design of its witch. Even despite the clichéd deployment of jerky movements and jump scares, serious work went into the design of its creature and it deserves commendation. The makeup effects are delicious and do give glimpse at what might have been possible. Unfortunately, in the face of everything else—the writing, the acting, the act three reveal which, I cannot stress enough, is so absurd that it threatens to ruin the whole thing even for people who might have otherwise been enjoying it—is simply not enough.
In all ways, The Wretched feels less like a title for this film than it does a descriptor. It’s too filled with mind-boggling leaps of narrative logic and shallow characterization to achieve anything close to what it wants to. I am haunted less by the film than by the feeling that my time might have been better spent staring absently at a wall and reviewing that instead. At least then I’d have no one to blame but myself. In the case of The Wretched, there’s almost too much blame to go around.
The Wretched is now available on on demand platforms.