CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: BRETT PIERCE, DREW T PIERCE / STARRING: JOHN-PAUL HOWARD, PIPER CURDA, ZARAH MAHLER, AZIE TESFAI / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW (VOD), JUNE 29TH (DVD)
Generic and unhelpful title aside, The Wretched (originally titled Hag, which is possibly marginally worse) is a decent slab of low budget, low-fi horror that manages to generate an acceptable degree of tension and as well as delivering a few subtle shivers. In a cast refreshingly free of ‘oh, look, it’s him/her from…’ faces, Jean-Paul Howard plays Ben, a troubled teenager with his arm in a cast, who goes to stay with his divorced father living with his new girlfriend in a coastal resort. Ben reluctantly agrees to take on the job at the local marina arranged for him by his father. Still, he soon finds himself distracted by his growing attraction to co-worker Mallory (Curda) and the strange behaviour of the family next door, especially mom Abbie (Mahler), who is behaving more than a little oddly.
The Wretched wears its influences quite proudly on its sleeve. There’s a bit of Invasion of the Body Snatchers here (a creepy witch able to inhabit the bodies of its victims) and a bit of Hitchcock there (Ben uses binoculars to spy on the activities of his neighbours) and even a bit of Spielberg in the general family dynamics. But the Pierce Brothers have taken these familiar tropes and ingredients (it’s hard to criticise them for being influenced by the best) to concoct an efficient, occasionally-dark and nasty little horror story that works hard to overcome the limitations imposed by its budget. The focus on practical if sparingly-used visual effects is refreshing and The Wretched generally relies on dark shadows and shapes moving through the night alongside clever if convenient plot twists (victims are ‘forgotten’ by their families once they have been consumed) to keep its story rolling. Ben discovers a gnarly old tree out in the nearby woods and discovers that a malevolent ancient force in the shape of a ghastly wizened witch-creature, has taken to emerge from the labyrinth of tunnels underneath the tree and captures and devours local children. In best Body Snatchers fashion, no one will believe his fanciful theories and his father plans to send him home to get medical help and eventually he is forced to confront the creature in its lair if he is to save the lives of the terrified child next door (already forgotten by his father) and Mallory’s little sister.
The Wretched won’t rewrite the horror rule book, but it’s a taut, punchy little film that plays effectively with half-remembered childhood tales of wicked witches carrying children off into dark, spooky woods. Strong visuals and some decent scares - the witch is a wild, nasty-looking creation - and the film’s commendably retro sensibilities work to create something rather refreshing from the familiar. Worthwhile and certainly not wretched.