Written and directed by brothers Brett and Drew Pierce, The Wretched is a twisted fairy tale that creates its own fun and freaky folklore. With the sensibilities of a classic 80s horror and the spark of a modern indie horror, the film strikes a good balance to introduce its own ideas.
In a bit of a witchy mix between Rear Window and Fright Night, the film follows defiant teenage Ben who — with a broken arm and his parents facing an imminent divorce — is sent to spend his summer with his father in a small coastal town. As Ben casually observes his new neighborhood, he begins to notice strange activity and soon finds himself facing off against a thousand year-old witch that wears the skin of her victims to accomplish her gruesome goals.
The technical elements of The Wretched are thoroughly impressive. For the sound design, the Pierce brothers found the perfect fit with Eliot Connors, whose other sound design credits include Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, Aquaman, and Star Trek Beyond. So much of the terror of the film is steeped in the crunching, snapping, and slopping sounds that crawl under your skin; they’re visceral. You can feel every sound effect shiver through you, enriching an image that’s only partially visual.
The lighting draws focus and elevates atmosphere, pulling the audience deep into the dark woods of the story. Shifting from bright daylight in the open air of a marina to the focused point of a flashlight or porch light when all else is steeped in darkness, the lighting leads us through the tone of each scene. It highlights just the right elements, plunging all else in shadow — which gives graceful flexibility to the film’s practical effects.
Exemplary practical effects are in the Pierce brothers’ blood — their father worked on the effects for The Evil Dead back in 1981. Part of the magic of creating your own monster lore is that you can really control its rules and details. The Pierce brothers take full advantage of this, developing a vocabulary of effects and effective visuals to build their beast.
Shifting skin and ragged talons punctuate the witch’s feral design as she claws her way through each scene. Her presence is announced by tearing flesh, masterfully accomplished by the effects team. One performance-based effect is the twitching, snapping physicality of the witch. It’s a simple detail, but it’s consistently creepy as hell.
As connoisseurs of horror films, it’s easy to become jaded by the tolerance we build to any horrific elements. It becomes a bragging point to announce that a film simply wasn’t scary. Watching The Wretched, I thought on what the film must feel like for the casual audience member who perhaps hasn’t developed that thick skin. I imagine it would certainly be effective. Instead of relying on jump scares, the film uses mood and tension to escalate the danger — and it’s genuinely scary. If you’re looking to tickle that part of your brain that longs for a classic spine-tingling atmospheric horror, The Wretched has you covered.
In the spirit of traditional fairy tales and classic 80s horror, it’s the children who are in real danger. When it comes to its victims, The Wretched pulls no punches. We are confronted with the reality of the witch’s hunt early on in a shocking sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Nothing is sacred and no one is safe.
Overall, each actor’s performance is on point — there are no real weak links here. But the standout characters are the three female leads; Mallory (Piper Curda), Abbie (Zarah Mahler), and Sara (Azie Tesfai). Each character is well rounded with strong personality and gumption, presenting traditional roles in an atypical way. The teen love interest, Mallory, is an endearing and quirky comic relief. Young mother Abbie is a confident, tattooed, deer dressing dynamo. Dad’s new girlfriend, Sara, has her own sense of agency outside of that relationship — she doesn’t have a large presence in the film, but she’s very well utilized.
These archetypes aren’t uncommon at all, but they’re often presented in a rather two-dimensional, stereotypical way. The Wretched treats these characters as the unique individuals they are, with each actress breathing life into their role. Notably, Curda as Mallory is wonderfully charming and she steals every scene she’s in.
Ultimately, The Wretched has the bones of a classic 80s horror, but has been polished and refurbished to make an entirely different beast. The Pierce brothers obviously put a great deal of love and care into the film, showing their passion for the art of filmmaking and the horror genre as a whole. It’s a humble offering, but it shows great promise for the future. We’ll just hope they don’t shed that horror skin.