Published Oct 28, 2019The Wretched's style harkens back to late '90s / early 2000s horror that revels in moments of corny, deranged, gleefully freaky fun, like a Goosebumps episode for adults. It may not be groundbreaking — it's got a distinctly low-budget indie feel with a few clunky shots and transitions, and isn't very clear on its own mythology — but it manages to do a lot with a little, as it descends into a creepy, original tale with some genuinely fantastic practical effects.
Seventeen year old Ben (John-Paul Howard), angry and bitter after witnessing his parents' divorce, goes to stay with his dad Liam (Jamison Jones) in a coastal town over the summer. Ben is awkward around his peers and his dad's new girlfriend, but does find a friend — and maybe something more — in Mallory (Piper Curda), his co-worker at the town marina. But a little harder to deal with than bullies and divorce drama are Liam's next-door neighbours. Initially, a cool, nice couple with two adorable little boys, something strange is going on with wife Abbie (Zarah Mahler), who seems darker, more feral and definitely more bloodthirsty lately.
Rather than taking one base source as inspiration, The Wretched effectively weaves together a variety of different, but familiar, horror concepts to develop one brand new one. Taking cues from The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Hansel and Gretel, Sleepy Hollow and the legend of the Jersey Devil, The Wretched invents its own mythology, more communicated via visual cues than the script. There is a sense of dark intensity and dread in the mist-filled forests, and subtle changes to Abbie's countenance after she's possessed by an ancient, evil witch (the formerly laid-back rocker mom starts wearing more makeup and "feminine" dresses).
Parts of this mythology do seem a bit unclear, especially a late-in-the-film twist that's pulled off well in the moment, but makes less and less sense the more you think about it. A different twist, one that relies on the audience's previous knowledge of the witch's power to make flowers wilt as she passes, is much more effective and rewards us for paying attention to The Wretched's moody visuals.
It would be remiss to mention visuals without bringing up The Wretched's practical effects. They're executed in a way that feels more faithful to the spirit of classic practical effects — gritty, weird and grotesque, without a layer of CGI polish on top. The design of the film's central monsters is again familiar but unique, creating memorable, horrific imagery that blends body horror with occult symbolism like bones and sigils.
Aside from a few slips and missteps (sometimes it's a little too corny, with an occasionally overwrought score), overall The Wretched is well-paced and uses every minute of its runtime efficiently, delivering a creepy, old-fashioned witch story that feels fun and fresh.