Written and directed by brothers Brett and Drew Pierce, The Wretched grips your imagination with its creative creature and inventive lore that crafts a fascinating and terrifying tale of a skin-stealing, child-eating wretch.
The film is a dark fairy tale that carries the sensibilities of a classic 80s horror with the spark of a modern indie horror. Speaking with the Pierce brothers at Toronto After Dark about their inspirations and their love for the horror genre, it’s easy to see how this fright-film film came into existence.
Carry on to read our revealing conversation, and click here to read my full TADFF review of The Wretched.
Kelly McNeely: So what was the genesis of The Wretched — where did this movie come from?
Drew Pierce: Our love of witch movies. Our love of witch stories and witch movies.
Brett Pierce: Actually, I mean, a lot of it starts with the Roald Dahl movie, The Witches. We read the book were kids and we loved it, and we love the movie —
Drew Pierce: It scared the shit out of us!
Brett Pierce: And I think we just always wanted to make a witch movie for that reason. And we wanted to lean a little more towards the creature aspect of a witch, less just a woman that does spells and curses. But I think also, I’m just a huge Hellboy comic nut — I own every Hellboy comic book, every spin off, and there’s a lot of witch stuff in that.
I was intrigued by all the folklore, so I went and read a bunch of witch folklore, and we found this one witch called Black Annie or Black Annis, which is a UK based witch that lives in a tree and eats children; she’s used as a scary story to make kids go to sleep. And she kind of looks like our witch. So we started with that, then we read a bunch of other witch myths and just stole the rules of other witches that we liked, and made the witch we wanted to work for our story.
Drew Pierce: There’s so many interesting myths, and most witch movies are just, it turns out that the witch is a ghost, you know? It’s a ghost of a woman who did evil things. We wanted to dive in and make it a full-on creature with its own set of rules.
Kelly McNeely: Yeah, less of a possession thing. Just, like, this is actually a witch who has these influences, and it’s genuinely terrifying. And the practical effects were amazing, can you talk a little bit about that?
Drew Pierce: We’re obsessed with practical effects. We’ve always loved practical stuff. Growing up with our dad, who obviously is steeped in that world. We collaborated with this makeup team, lead by Eric Porn. It’s really challenging, but it’s a great collaboration. I’m a storyboard artist and designer, so I helped with a lot of the creature design and we passed stuff back and forth, and it was just a treat to work with him and we got to put that together.
Brett Pierce: It was really cool because Drew did initial designs of the creature, like really cool graphic designs and showed those to Eric, and then Eric did a 3D model of what he thought it would be. And we figured out where we wanted to be in the middle, but then we went back to Michigan to prep and get ready to shoot, and he would send us pictures of the sculptures he was doing, and Drew would just take it and we could draw over it and be like, maybe thin the face out, move the nose a little more, blah blah, and send it back, and then a day later he would send us the updated version, and we did that until we had the witch that we liked.
Drew Pierce: It’s a real challenge with practical effects, because they only look good for a couple seconds on camera from, like, that one angle. So you really have to design and think about it in advance. The other challenge is, you can make something look really really cool in one frame if you over build it, but then there’s no mobility for if you have a creature actor, which we did. So that was that was kind of the big challenge.
Brett Pierce: That secret component to it is the actress that played the witch. Her name is Madelynn Stuenkel, she’s in the beginning of the movie when the babysitter goes into the basement — that’s actually the same girl that plays the witch in the end of the movie. But she just sent us this random tape of her doing creepy crawly stuff. And she’d never done any of this stuff before, but it was awesome.
She’s so tall, she’s also so thin, but she just has really long arms and really long legs, so we were like, let’s just work with her anatomy. We tried not to — like Drew was saying — not to be too thick in certain areas, because what made her creepy is that she was just this long, creepy creature. And honestly, we got really lucky, because she would do these movements where you’re like, “oh, do that again”. It wasn’t even our plan. It’s like, “oh, you dropped your shoulder so fast. It looks so creepy”. It was cool.
Kelly McNeely: I was gonna ask about that as well, how the witch and that physicality developed, because it’s so distinctive.
Drew Pierce: Funny enough, we reached out for casting the witch, we created this casting call for people trying to create their own authentic movements for our witch, and we got back some of the funniest tapes you’ve ever seen [both laugh].
Brett Pierce: People running at the camera screaming…
Drew Pierce: Crawling, shifting just in weird ways…
Brett Pierce: Weird voices…
Drew Pierce: And then Madelynn sent us her tape, and we were immediately like, this is the girl. She’s ripped, she’s just a really athletic person in general, but she did a couple of movements that were sort of impressionist of The Ring and The Grudge. But then she did these really cool contortion moves and a lot of stuff with her back, and sneaking around, they just felt animalistic.
Brett Pierce: And I think we always wanted to have sudden movements, because we were going to add a lot of bone crunching, celery rip sound effects. And we got really lucky with Zarah Mahler, who plays the woman who first gets possessed by the witch, because she did all the same type of stuff too. So it was cool, because she started kind of playing her first — that was some of the first stuff we shot — and Madelynn got to watch her do it. So they informed each other. And we ended up with a very consistent character, even though it’s played by multiple actors.
Kelly McNeely: That opening scene as well, it really gets you. I love that you guys don’t hold back when it comes to how you deal with kids. Can you talk a little bit about that? Was there ever a time you were like, maybe we shouldn’t?
Brett Pierce: I think because we were kids in the 80s, and kids had all these sort of horror movies, but also straight up horror movies where bad things happen to kids! And it was okay. And I learned what to be afraid of, I learned from that. But I feel like as time went on, we got so worried about kids being scared or making those type of movies. I think when we went into it, we didn’t even think about it.
Drew Pierce: Yeah, to us, it’s just in our DNA.
Brett Pierce: And other people will point out like, “you have all this fun stuff early, can this stuff happen?” And we’re like… yeah! And they’re like, “but we like them”. And, yeah, you’re supposed to like them, so when bad things happen, it’s awful!
Drew Pierce: And there was definitely talk about, how gory do you go? What do you show, because what’s entertainment and what’s just exploitative? So there is definitely a happy medium for that.
Brett Pierce: We’re big fans of hinting at things, like you can be gory, you also don’t have to be over the top. You can just give the people the pieces and they put the horror together in their mind. And that’s actually worse than just, I see everything happening and it’s awful.
Kelly McNeely: Yeah, you don’t have to be totally explicit. You can leave that little bit to the imagination, which makes it so much scarier – to fill in those blanks.
Brett Pierce: Yeah, exactly. And we just like making movies that way instead, that’s more our thing.
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