It’s often difficult for any modern horror flick to feel fresh or become a game changer particularly in the case of this low-budget, homegrown film produced here in Michigan (reportedly shot in Omena, MI), impressively acted “The Wretched,” which is the sophomore feature film by the filmmaking brothers, Brett and Drew Pierce. The brothers are Royal Oak natives, in which their father worked on the special effects on Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead.”
Injecting a breath of fresh air and scare, “The Wretched” showcases that there is still juice in the overused horror genre, particular in the Pierce brothers writing that indeed holds some sharp character depth that also generates some scares and suspense from its visual style, primarily the use of heightened angels along with a chilling mood and atmosphere.
This film’s screenplay, also penned by the brothers, is slender and elemental on subtext. The film has a lot to work with it, but it feels more like a calling-card project that should get the Pierces larger budgets and even greater creative freedom in the near future. However, by my estimate, the film certainly has numerous effective moments. There are at least five or six truly eerie moments, which are quite unnerving that will satisfy any die-hard horror movie fan. Very predictable and bland on a narrative and structure level, “The Wretched” indeed exploits the same reference points to many notable horror movies (Notably “Jaws,”, “Rear Window,” and William Friedkin’s “The Guardian.”), it succeeds by adding some new elements by the way of its main characters as the Pierce brothers show respect for their characters sincerity and maturity.
The strongest elements of “The Wretched” are indeed the first hour or so, especially a very promising and impressive opening scene, or rather 30 year prelude where we see a witch luring children into the woods, this allows the Pierce brothers to play on horror movie settings that consists of woods and water. Very much in the vein of Friedkin’s “The Guardian,” the film involves a creature that is part monster, part tree that can also embody and take over the human body.
In the present day, we are introduced to Ben (John-Paul Howard), a troubled teen who ends up living with his father, Liam (Jamison Jones) over the course of the summer. Ben comes from divorced parents, has a broken left arm that is in a cast suggests Ben is a tormented and troubled young soul that is bitter about many things–including showing hostility for his dad dating his co-worker Sara (Azie Tesfai). Ben ends up working for his dad at his local marina on Lake Michigan, where he meets Mallory (Piper Curda), a young woman his age that shows an instant attraction towards him, even after he is eyeing another local beautiful young woman that hangs out with some toxic guys that brings Ben even more trouble.
The Pierce Brothers do an impressive job building up Ben’s characterization while moving the narrative forward with the scares as Ben’s neighbor, including a gorgeous hipster woman named Abbie (Zarah Mahler) who encounters a giant tree that has ominous branches and vines while hiking with her son Dillon (Blane Crockarell) in the woods. The encounter with the mystical tree instantly turns Abbie’s demeanor and voice from being sweet to antagonistic. On the way home, Abbie ends up crashing into a giant deer while driving on a road, in which she ends up strangely gutting the deer for dinner. Abbie’s husband Ty (Kevin Bigley) notices a change in her temperament, and it doesn’t take long for the creature to crawl out of the deer, into Abbie’s body, and put Abbie’s own infant child, Dillon, and Ty into great danger. Ben observes the strange actions next door and is convinced the neighbors are no longer who they appear to be.
During the films “Rear Window” reference, we see Ben spying on Abbie and Ty as they get intimate in their bedroom, its a creepy scene since we see the creature brewing within the flesh of Abby. A more edgier and unforgettable approach would have played with the erotic longing of Ben coming to terms with his newly discovered adolescent sexual desires, considering throughout the film the writing is build-up with themes about teenage sexuality as Ben begins to form sexual attraction towards women his age. There is a sufficient scene where Ben is humiliated in front of Mallory during a skinny-dumping prank, its a pivotal moment where we see Ben wrestle with his own insecurities and uncertainties.
From there the Pierce brothers implement familiar genre tropes that consists of jock and bully-princess stereotypes that feel like they are straight out of an 80s teenage comedy, meanwhile the mythology of the tree is lightly sketched as we get womb imagery and visual references to “The Guardian” and Robert Eggers’s “The Witch.” Despite how mechanical and familiar the third act becomes, what works best here is the character depth Ben holds. The Pierce brothers triumph in making you care about his apprehensions and you certainly find yourself rooting for him.
There are plenty of jump scares littered throughout “The Wretched,” but all around there is solid craftsmanship and impressive imagery in behalf of cinematographer Conor Murphy, who utilizes a wise lens selection, along with brooding shadows and eerie lighting that anchor the Pierce brothers conceptual vision. The location of Omena adds to the films effectiveness, a boating and hot spot vacation community –the location along with the creepy use of the lens and utilization of angles and shots always manufactures the material to feel at an unease. Despite some clichés in the third act and some meandering moments in the middle-section that undermines some of the narrative momentum–the film is guided with a commanding confidence and passion for a genre that all around delivers the right amount of malevolence and thrills.