**Contains Some Spoilers**
Coming of age and horror expertly go hand in hand. Stephen King is a master of this trope and his influence certainly casts a spell in this tale of a teenage angst and witchcraft. Ben (John-Paul Howard) is a misguided 17-year-old who is struggling to come to terms with his parents impending divorce. Following a troublesome time he heads off to his Father’s (Jamison Jones) summer home to recuperate but little does he know a supernatural nightmare awaits when he comes face to face with a thousand year old flesh devouring witch with a sinister agenda living in the skin of the woman next door.
The Wretched is a cross breed of IT (2017), Summer of 84 (2018) and Disturbia (2007) in its plot and tone. In many ways it adheres to the standard horror tropes we’ve been accustomed to within the genre; a young protagonist discovers that something is awry with the neighbours, yet nobody seems to believe him and deems him crazy. He strikes up a friendship with a plucky young girl who inevitably ends up becoming the love interest. Finally, a multitude of unfortunate situations keep happening to him as a result of messing with the villain that the rest of the characters question his integrity even though unknowingly, they are in grave danger and he is the only one who can save them! Despite not presenting a highly original narrative, the Pierce brothers offer up a slick, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, creepy teen horror with a stomach-churning sound design and outstanding creature effects.
The Pierce Brothers put their own stamp on the narrative qualities they’ve been inspired by, creating an interesting tone and overall mood for the film. There are some well-crafted moments of suspense and dread, when the elements of creepiness transpire, they truly deliver with unsettling set pieces. The film doesn’t put on any sort of front and while it’s not being blatant in the vein of “look how self-aware we are”, there’s an essence that they are keeping their tongue firmly planted in their cheek, suggesting to the audience “we know what we’re going for here and you do too” without ramming it down our throats.
Remarkably, The Wretched is almost completely devoid of jump scares. From the outset, it would be easy to assume that because this is a mainstream horror flick, it won’t put any effort into building a sense of ambience within the fear factor choosing to be loud and startling for the sake of generating a few ‘jump out of the seat’ moments for the audience. Cleverly, the film uses camera trickery to make the audience feel that there’s a presence lurking in the shadows waiting to strike before pulling back to a safe sense of security for the time being. The build-up of suspense is intricately crafted, allowing for plenty to be left to the imagination.
While there are several unnerving scares taking place in the dark, the film equally knows how to frighten in broad daylight. The seaside town setting and summery vibe juxtaposes the notion of horror while raising the stakes, especially when Ben is caught spying on his neighbours convinced that things are not as they seem. The witch herself is a mysterious and confident villain as she has no qualms in terrorising Ben during the middle of the day where she could be discovered at any given moment. To a degree the setting and horror taking place out in the open is evocative of I know what you did last summer (1997) which saw a group of teens stalked and terrorised primarily when the sun was out. The Wretched does have a nostalgic feel to it with comparisons drawn to that period of late 90’s early 00’s teen horror/thrillers.
John-Paul Howard confidently leads the cast in the main role, he is troubled and sympathetic dealing with major life changes and on top of that being hounded by an unstoppable supernatural force. His fears surrounding his parents imminent divorce paralleled with his otherworldly predicament amalgamates into an allegory for growing up, facing change as well as inner fears. Piper Curda delivers a charismatic and engaging performance as the charming and hardworking Mallory who works for Ben’s father’s sailing company. There’s instantaneous chemistry between the two tapping into the notion of first love and summer romance.
The standout performance belongs to Zarah Mahler in the role of Abbie, the unconventional punk rock but good-hearted mother of two transformed into an unspeakably evil and sinister witch. Mahler truly sinks her teeth into the dual role, creating a well-rounded sympathetic character before transitioning into her terrifying performance as the witch inside her skin. Without revealing too much, there is one freaky moment when the witch confronts Ben on the porch with him inside the house, marking the film’s most tense scene. The key players are aided by a strong supporting cast, namely Jamison Jones as Ben’s dismissive father who does an excellent job in portraying their frayed relationship and Azie Tesfai as Sara, Ben’s father’s misunderstood but well-meaning new girlfriend. The child actors involved deliver naturalistic performances and are effortlessly convincing in depicting their fear once they are placed in peril.
Both the sound design and creature effects are exceptional. The sound effects provide the main source of the horror with cracking and animalistic noises present. The skin crawling creature effects go all out with some magnificent moments of twisted body horror. The film isn’t explicitly gratuitous but does enough to make its audience squirm in the right places. The image of the witch wearing others skin is pure horror in its element. The Pierce Brothers pay homage to cult mega-classic Evil Dead (1981) in the opening sequence within the camera work, their father Bart worked on the special effects for the Raimi masterclass in low budget horror so suffice to say, their penchant for creating horrifying FX is in their blood.
The Wretched culminates with an inventive twist and a satisfying showdown, wrapping up the narrative nicely. Audiences will go into The Wretched knowing exactly what they’re going to get, that said it remains a fun ride and an exercise in thrilling suspense.
An appreciation of horror as whole, are you brave enough to face The Wretched? The Wretched will be available across all digital platforms from the 8th May 2020.