Witchy horror has always been a sub-genre I love. And while The Wretched, world-premiering at Fantasia 2019 tonight, isn’t as thematically intriguing as most, it is one of the most frightening films I’ve seen all year…
…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. It’s with this that the Pierce Brothers let us know that they aren’t fucking around with The Wretched. My eyes nearly popped out of my head from abject horror, and more than once. As we all know, killing kids is taboo in horror. 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 horror 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 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 the good person he is. What keeps Ben and other characters around him from blooming into people we find interesting is that The Wretched doesn’t focus enough on their intertwining relationships. Ben and Mallory’s developing “romance” is vaguely touched on, and the tension with his dad is almost non-existent. This all leaves Ben and everyone else feeling pretty basic as people, but that’s okay, because The Wretched doesn’t need them to be anything more than that.
That’s because the witch in The Wretched is so beyond frightening, we don’t 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 face, 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. My one issue with the plot element is that is isn’t nearly as fleshed out as the skin hanging off of the witch’s bones. Ben doesn’t begin “playing” this game with the witch until at least halfway through the film, leaving little time to build the suspense with him trying to warn his father and others of the danger.
The most horrifying element of The Wretched though isn’t the creature that looks straight out of The Descent inhabiting Sara’s body. It’s the fact that The Wretched is a film that feels strangely timely, intentional or not, thanks to a unique ability which the witch possesses: the power to make everyone in town forget about a child. With each helpless victim, she casts a spell that seems to work on everyone but Ben (for an unknown reason), one which makes it as if the kid never existed at all. It’s an idea that hits close to home in a time where Americans have largely become so numb to the death of children, whether through gun violence or at the border, that it’s as if we cast our own spells to help us forget about all of the pain out there. The Wretched disturbed me in ways other horror films haven’t this year, and that’s a big part of why.
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. It’s an ending that feels rushed and typical to these sorts of films, and is the one area of the film other than the forgettable score that feels awfully average. Still, The Wretched is nightmarish, old-fashioned horror worth venturing out to that gingerbread house in the woods for.
By Matt Konopka