REVIEW: “The Wretched” (2020)

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In “The Wretched” teenager Ben (John-Paul Howard) is still adjusting to his parents’ recent divorce. It hasn’t gone well. After getting into some legal trouble while living with his mother (resulting in a broken arm), Ben is sent to spend the summer with his father who lives in a lakeside tourist town. While there he will work for his dad (played by Jamison Jones) at the local marina and hopefully get a fresh start.

But this is a supernatural horror movie so there are no easy paths to happiness and contentment. Aside from the evil terror brewing in a nearby forest, things get off to a rough start for Ben. For starters, his father already has a new girlfriend,  Sara (Azie Tesfai). And it doesn’t help that all of the local teens are rich, obnoxious brats. The lone exception is his co-worker Mallory (Piper Curda), a free-wheeling breath of fresh air who instantly takes a liking to Ben.

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Photo Courtesy IFC Films

Now about that malevolent presence in the woods. Ben begins to suspect something sinister is going on in the two-story rent house next door. After a hipster couple and their two children move in, Ben notices some bizarre behavior. The wife (Zarah Mahler) disappears into the forest with her infant baby. The husband suddenly denies they even have children. The couple makes constant trips into their padlocked basement. In this angle plucked straight out of 1985’s “Fright Night”, Ben spies on his neighbors, pokes around their house at night, even calls the police but to no avail. Of course Ben is right. A wicked entity has been let lose, preying on children and using their parents as hosts.

The film is written and directed by Brett and Drew T. Pierce who employ several well-worn horror movie tropes. But their movie doesn’t rely on them, instead working more in suspense than abject terror. And they aren’t afraid to let their influences show. There are little hints of everything from “Jaws” to “Close Encounters” and the Pierce Brothers’ keen mixture of score and cinematography would make Spielberg smile.

The creature/demon/witch thing is pretty frightening with its pale veiny skin, jagged claws, and wicked body contortions. It’s not terrible original, but it gets the job done. The brothers smartly embrace the idea that less is more, only giving us a few glimpses of the full being. Instead we mostly see it through the person it is possessing along with the sometimes grotesque effects it has on them. Overall the entity manages to be effectively chilling even though keeping up with its host-hopping became a chore especially in the final act.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

From the very start “The Wretched” commits a surprising amount of time to its characters. They come across as authentic and fleshed-out even though their stories are nothing especially new. Yet their stories are important especially once the movie positions itself as a metaphor for forgotten children in the wake of divorce. And generally speaking the performances are okay, shaky at times, but serviceable. You won’t find a big name anywhere in the cast, but for the most part the fresh faces manage (some better than others).

What ends up standing out most is the movie’s crisp pacing and tone management. The Pierce brothers keep things moving at just the right speed, deftly balancing character and tension-building while working within a familiar genre space. Yet “The Wretched” is a movie that can’t fully hide its limitations despite its ability to rise above them. It’s still very much worth a watch, and if you’re looking for a horror movie you could do a lot worse.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

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