2019 | DIR: BRETT & DREW PIERCE | STARRING: JOHN-PAUL HOWARD, PIPER CURDA, BIANE CROCKARELL, JAMISON JONES, ZARAH MAHLER, KEFIN BIGLEY, MADELYNN STUENKEL| REVIEW BY CHRIS THOMPSON
The prologue in The Wretched is an example of the latter: it’s 1985 and hapless babysitter Megan (Sydne Mikelle) arrives to a seemingly empty house until she realises that the ‘Wretch’ is in the basement feeding on the kid. Say goodnight, Megan. There’s no origin story here and no information that will improve the telling of the main narrative. It might deliver a good fright and introduce a nicely designed creature but, really, it’s just a dress rehearsal for what we’ll see happen later in the movie when we jump forward to the present day. It also introduces us to a symbol carved on the door jamb – something that looks a bit like an upside down ‘A’ or anarchy symbol. It tells us that there’s some spooky woodlands pagan stuff going on here, but despite its reappearance at various points throughout the film (presumably carved by one of the Wretch’s nasty looking claws), it never really amounts to anything more than texture.
The present-day story sees Ben (John-Paul Howard) arriving at a seaside town to spend a bit of time with his divorced dad Liam (Jamison Jones). Turns out that Liam lives in the same house we saw in the prologue - a house with a lovely weirdness to it, dwarfed by the big house next door and with the impression that it's hiding behind a huge tree. But this isn’t a haunted house story, so the connection to the prologue has no real purpose. That big house next door, however, is where Abbie (Zarah Mahler) and Ty (Kevin Bigley) live with their son Dillon (Biane Crockarell) and baby Sam (Owen Thomas Pierce). When Abbie arrives home with a road-kill deer strapped to the hood of her car and proceeds to gut it in the driveway, we discover that the Wretch (Madelynn Stuenkel) has been hibernating inside the poor creature. Released into the world it possesses Abbie and bad things follow.
Meanwhile, Liam gives Ben a job at the boat franchise he runs on the local harbour and it’s here that Ben meets Mallory (Piper Curda), a wise-cracking, no-nonsense, older-than-her-years kinda gal who gives Ben a run for his money. There’s also the obligatory rich-kids-on-daddy’s-boat who humiliate Ben and, of course, the discovery that Liam has moved on since the divorce and has taken up with Sara (Azie Tesfai) all of which contribute to tensions between Liam and Ben who increasingly comes to depend on his growing friendship (relationship?) with Mallory.
I realise that all this sounds pretty negative and probably gives the impression that I didn’t much care for the movie. Not true. Once I set aside my predisposition to not being a fan of the prologue, this film really grew on me but maybe not for the reasons that a horror film should. For me, it’s in the relationship between Ben and Mallory where the film comes alive; it’s fresh and lively and, whilst the film isn’t a teen romance, their story certainly has elements of that. Howard is really endearing as Ben but it’s Curda’s performance as Mallory that drives things. It didn’t even bother me that the film isn’t really that scary. Admittedly, that’s a problem if it’s a straight up horror film you’re looking for. In that respect, it tends to travel along a pretty well-worn trope-ish path and I never feel like we get a handle on this woodland Wretch. Where has it come from? Why has it reappeared now? What’s its relationship with the human world? Are people just food, or is there something more malevolent, more evil at its heart? Why does it seem to possess adults but steal away children? These ideas are never really explored in any depth. However, there is one very effective idea associated with this creature: when the children are taken by it, they cease to exist in memory. This all adds to Ben’s frustration as he comes to realise that there’s a dark force visiting the town. After Abbie is possessed, the Wretch steals baby Sam and when Ben tries to make Ty understand that something terrible has happened to his infant son, Ty denies that the child ever existed. It’s the strongest element of the film and sets us up for a nice little twist at the end.
The irony of this film, for me, is that it has a really strong retro feel to it – touches of Richard Donner’s Goonies (1985) or Steven Spielberg’s ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) where the kids must deal with the strange or otherworldly occurrences with little or no help from the grown-ups – and if it had stayed in the 1980s setting of the prologue, everything about this film would have resonated so much more. That being said, there’s an enjoyable time to be had with The Wretched as long as you’re prepared to focus on the human stories it has to tell and let the supernatural world stay largely unexplained and in the background.