[Blu-ray Review] 'The Wretched' Disc is Skin and Bones with Special Features, but Savory Nonetheless
Witchy horror has always been a sub-genre I love...
...And while The Wretched, which made a killing at the drive-in, isn’t as thematically intriguing as most, it is one of the most frightening films I’ve seen all year, which is why it's exciting that IFC Midnight is finally bringing the film to Blu-ray this week.
One element that makes witch horror so terrifying is the idea that witches look at the meat of children the same way I look at a greasy burrito from my favorite Mexican restaurant. Dating at least all the way back to the story of “Hansel and Gretel”, witches are seen feasting on the blood of the innocent as a method of revitalization. The Wretched takes these tropes and daringly translates them to the screen in a way we’ve rarely seen. Written/directed by Brett Pierce & Drew T. Pierce (Deadheads), The Wretched follows Ben (John-Paul Howard), a rebellious teenager struggling with his parents’ divorce, who goes to live with his dad for the summer. But when Ben starts to believe that a witch not only lives next door, but is eating the kids in town, no one believes him and it’s up to Ben to stop her.
Opening with a mellow, gothic theme emphasized by witchy, upside down A symbols that appear all throughout the film, The Wretched at first feels like your average teen horror flick. But it’s not. Not even close. Because in just the first few minutes, we’re shown the blood-curdling image of the villainous witch snacking on a small child like a rack of ribs…a scene which the Pierce brothers reveal on the commentary was smartly added months later to give the film that horrific jolt to start things off. It succeeds and then some, because it’s with this that the Pierce Brothers let us know that they aren’t fucking around with The Wretched. As we all know, killing kids in any genre is taboo. And some of you, fairly, don’t want to see that in your horror films. But the thing about The Wretched or any other film opening with the bloody murder of a kid is that the film lets us know anything goes, and no one is safe.
Set-up to throw down with the ancient child killer is your average, angsty teen, Ben. Depressed and angry but a good guy regardless, he’s the sort of character most of us can relate to, because we have all experienced that same screw the world attitude. Though relatable, Ben isn’t all that interesting, yet the Pierce Brothers find ways to bring us into his story, whether it’s fighting with his dad, Liam (Jamison Jones), shyly flirting with the cute and much more fascinating girl he meets at his new job at the docks, Mallory (Piper Curda), or facing cruel practical jokes from the other kids in town, we get Ben and understand who he is. I’d much rather follow the spunky Mallory, but Ben is likeable enough, even if he is kind of a jerk, as the filmmakers admit.
Regardless, The Wretched is so beyond frightening, it doesn’t even need fascinating characters for it to be a great watch. Once the witch makes a body suit out of Ben’s neighbor, Sara (Azie Tesfai), the terror really begins. Tesfai is incredibly unsettling in the role. She intimidates with soft, threatening whispers and wide eyes that make her look almost inhuman at times, enhanced by the well-crafted sound FX of cracking bones and stretching-skin that accompanies her every movement. To heighten her unnatural presence, the Pierce Brothers brilliantly employ a method of framing Sara so that, whenever we see her face, she always appears either too far in the image or way too close for comfort, creating an effect where we’re constantly trying to make out her appearance, or wishing we couldn’t see it at all.
Adding to the fun is the cat and mouse game escalating between Ben and Sara once he realizes what she really is. Grounded in his room with nothing to do but watch his creepy neighbor, The Wretched is like Fright Night meets Rear Window with a child-eating witch and a blend of fairy-tale horror. Ben even has a cast on his arm, a callback to James Stewart’s character having a broken leg in Rear Window. What the Pierce Brothers have done with The Wretched is bring the jaw-dropping terror of The Witch to a neighborhood near you with a classic horror concept of the monster next door.
It’s a good thing too that The Wretched is so unnerving, so masterfully eerie, that I was able to overlook the out of left field twist that nearly causes this film to melt like the wicked witch of the west. The filmmakers explain on the commentary all of the different ways they attempted to set it up, and I admire their efforts, but it’s the sort of twist that is going to cause audiences to feel tricked rather than surprised no matter what. Still, The Wretched is nightmarish, old-fashioned horror worth venturing out to that gingerbread house in the woods for.
As for IFC Midnight’s Blu-ray, it’s far less tempting and filling than said gingerbread house. With just two commentaries, one with the Pierce brothers and one with composer Devin Burrows, to say it barely has any skin on the bones would be an understatement. That being said, I have to give respect for any studio which releases their film with even one commentary these days, a feature which seems to be dying outside of collector-centric distributors such as Scream Factory or Vinegar Syndrome. And for anyone that’s a fan of the film and wants to know more about it, the Pierce brothers have an entertaining charm about them all throughout as they focus the discussion on how certain scenes where shot, directing tips, plus a welcome passion for practical effects. As someone who wants as little use of digital in my horror as possible, it’s a joy to hear the filmmakers discuss their efforts to stray away from digital effects, even re-working scenes such as the fire in the house towards the end so that they wouldn’t have to employ it.
Frankly, Burrow’s commentary is far less interesting. I give Burrow credit for trying, and there’s a certain loveable quality to his demeanor as he starts off the commentary telling dad jokes, like saying he doesn’t recognize the landline phone in the beginning and asking, “what’s that thing called again, a telegraph?” Burrow does offer tidbits on the titles of tracks in each scene and where the inspiration for the score came from, which will be especially interesting to budding composers, but outside of that, Burrow often trails off and lets long moments of silence pass. Not his fault, doing a commentary by yourself isn’t easy, but you can probably pass on this track.
Either way, The Wretched disc looks and sounds gorgeous, so while collector’s will wish the disc had been fattened up a bit more, the average fan of the film will find the disc well worth sinking their witch-loving teeth into.
The Wretched arrives on Blu-ray August 11th from IFC Midnight. Pre-order the film here, and check out the full list of special features below.
By Matt Konopka