Sometimes, when you watch a film festival selection, you just know when you’re watching something special. There might not even be anything outwardly disruptive or groundbreaking about the film (though, there usually is), but there’s a clear feeling that you’re watching a project that has the chance to break through and launch an actor, writer, or director into the mainstream, or at least into an interesting career.
I definitely get that vibe from Brett and Drew Pierce’s The Wretched, an official selection of Fantasia Fest 2019. There’s a level of polish and a sureness of execution in the film that you don’t always see in a second feature. It’s not a film that necessarily feels entirely new, in the way that Robert Eggers’ The Witch felt, but it does play with a few disparate elements, like voyeurism by way of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, possession by way of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, non-linear chronology, and more.
Ben (John-Paul Howard) has moved back in with his father Liam (Jamison Jones) for the summer after a dumb accident and a broken arm. His parents are going through a divorce that’s neither friendly nor hostile; it’s just there. It’s certainly going to require some adjustment, but with a new job at the marina that his dad runs, a new friend in Mallory (Piper Curda), his sharp-tongued and wryly funny coworker, and some ready-made antagonists in the form of some yacht-bros that seem straight out of a WB teen series from the early 2000’s, things seem to be going okay.
But there’s something abnormal underneath the house next door, where cool mom Abbie (Zarah Mahler) who slaughters deer and wears metal shirts, her oblivious husband Ty (Kevin Bigley), precocious son Dylan (Judah Abner Paul), and a new baby live. It’s something that abducts and devours children, possessing their mothers, then causes those women and everyone around them to forget that their kids even existed. And what’s with that symbol that’s hastily carved everywhere, that upside-down A that signifies a creature that “feasts upon the forgotten?” Or that spooky, hollow tree in the woods that’s only visible to certain people and sometimes beckons people to it?
Unlike a lot of horrors that would spend a lot of time dancing around the subject, The Wretched lets you know that you’re dealing with a witchy woman.
The witch iconography we’re all familiar with from movies like The Blair Witch Project – the sticks, the runes, the naked woman moving jerkily around while tearing out a child’s neck with her teeth – is right up front in the movie. The mystery of whether there’s witchery afoot is never a mystery at all. Instead, The Wretched is mostly about Ben working out what’s going on with Abbie and her family as an observer and then trying to convince anyone that he’s not crazy. All the while, the witch is tearing through the town like a hatchet through teenagers in a different kind of horror movie.
One thing I enjoyed about The Wretched is that the natural flow of the dialogue, especially the witty banter between Mallory and Ben, really amplifies how unnatural the witchy business next door really is. The characters are human and believable, and even minor side characters like the yacht-bros and Ian’s girlfriend, Sarah, feel fleshed-out. Characters largely act and react as you’d expect, but the left turns in the plot still keep things very interesting.
The effects, mostly practical from what I can tell, are top-shelf and evocative of the best of the genre, including Evil Dead and The Grudge, while still being their own thing. The Pierce brothers’ father Bert Pierce worked on visual effects for Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2, and you can definitely see the influence of those movies on The Wretched. They’re convincing and very well-timed to convey the right amount of dread – a baby monitor is used perfectly in one key scene, for example.
The Wretched is a polished, well-executed witch tale that might not reinvent the wheel, but does feature some interesting twists and very good writing. It delivers some scares from unexpected places, and there’s probably more than a couple of breakout stars in the cast, based on their performances. If a serious, modern witch tale is what you’re after, give The Wretched a look.
The Fantasia International Film Festival runs through August 1, 2019, Learn more about Fantasia 2019 at their official website.