The Wretched


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Wretched
"The tropes it uses are old ones but simplicity works in their favour, adding to the sense that there are uncanny powers at work and that nothing is quite what it seems." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

Whilst there are any number of zombie, ghost and vampire movies out there, witches ten to be approached with a little more caution. The politics of the subject are complicated, given that significant numbers of innocent people have been killed as a result of witch panics (and still are today, in some places), given that there are people who consider witchcraft to be an important part of their religious or spiritual lives, and given that popular witch-related imagery is closely bound up with misogyny. There's also difficulty surrounding the multiple contradictory notions of what a witch actually is (at last in Western culture, which may be why most of today's witch films come from the East). To make a film like this work, one needs a strong central concept and an approach that successfully invokes ancient terrors without too much damaging baggage. Fortunately, writers/directors Brett Pierce and Drew T Pierce have both - and quite a bit more besides.

This is a sneaky little film and one you will need to watch closely from the outset to catch everything that's going on. It's full of small unsettling moments, some of which turn out to have much greater import than is at first apparent. Despite revolving around teenagers, it has plenty to offer to older viewers and an ample supply of chills for everyone.

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Ben (John-Paul Howard) is spending the summer with his dad, helping out at a small town marina. He likes the work but s uncomfortable about being there because his parents are in the process of getting divorced and his dad has hooked up with a younger woman. Things start looking up when he's befriended by gothy local teenager Mallory (Piper Curda), and he also has fun working with young next door neighbour Dillon (Blane Crockarell), who wants to learn to sail. But when Dillon doesn't show up one day, and the boy's father gives every impression of having genuinely forgotten that he ever existed, Ben begins to suspect that something is seriously amiss. Who is the mysterious woman who has moved into Dillon's house? How is she managing to get everyone under her spell, and just what has she got locked away in the storm cellar?

Any young person whose parents are divorcing will know how frustrating it is to feel that nobody will listen to them. This really isn't the time to start coming out with sinister theories about the neighbours - even though, as he investigates, Ben uncovers more and more disturbing evidence. Naturally, he also attracts the woman's attention - and that could be more dangerous than he bargained for.

Attractively shot on location in northern Michigan, with the clear light off the great lake, The Wretched effectively establishes the ordinariness of its setting and the people who live there before introducing any outright elements of horror, which are more effective for the contrast. The tropes it uses are old ones but simplicity works in their favour, adding to the sense that there are uncanny powers at work and that nothing is quite what it seems. The specific threat to children (though other characters are also imperilled) gives the story a particularly disturbing aspect, and the Pierces provide no easy means of escaping its emotional impact.

With solid performances all round, The Wretched has a polished quality that makes it stand out from most genre fare. It has a clear sense of its relationship with traditional lore and explores the awkward spaces around identity, memory and responsibility with confidence. You won't need to be a horror fan to appreciate it but you might find yourself struggling to sleep afterwards.

Reviewed on: 29 Apr 2020
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The Wretched packshot
A defiant teenage boy, struggling with his parent's imminent divorce, faces off with a thousand year-old witch, who is living beneath the skin of and posing as the woman next door.
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Director: Brett Pierce, Drew T Pierce

Writer: Brett Pierce, Drew T Pierce

Starring: Azie Tesfai, Piper Curda, Kevin Bigley, Tug Coker, John-Paul Howard, Gabriela Quezada Bloomgarden

Year: 2019

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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