THE WRETCHED – Review
C’mon film fans. let’s shake off the stuck-at-home isolation blues with this week’s new release. Yup, it’s not an “indie” full of despair and drama. So, it’s a rollicking comedy? Well..uh uh. A toe-tappin’ musical, perhaps?, Nah…it’s a horror flick. Well. at least you can feel good that all the weirdness isn’t directed at you as you stare out the window (hmm, the hero spends lots of screentime doing just that). And this is indeed an independent film, another in the subgenre of “art-house” horror led by THE WITCH, THE BABADOOK, and the very recent THE OTHER LAMB, though, in spirit, it may be closest to the retro thrills of IT FOLLOWS. This one owes a lot to that 70s homage, though it has more of the 1980’s thriller vibe of the Netflix hit “Stranger Things”. So with all the real-world scares outside can THE WRETCHED deliver the shivers?
Speaking of that past decade, the story begins with a flashback to a gruesome graphic incident in 1985 (it looks like an “afterschool special” no network would run). Jumpcut to today as teenager Ben (John-Paul Howard) gazes out the window of the bus taking him to a sleepy lakeside town somewhere in the US. After his folks split, this is where dad Liam (Jamison Jones) landed, running the local marina. And since Ben is spending the Summer with him, he’s got a job there. He’s not too keen about taking grief from the local rich kids, nor is he thrilled about Dad’s new girlfriend Sara (Azie Tesfal). But at least he’s made a friend, his cute and snarky co-worker Mallory (Piper Curda). And then there’s the weird next-door neighbors, Summer renters: affable beer-guzzling Ty (Kevin Bigley), doting mother Abbie (Zarah Mahler), grade-schooler Dillon (Blane Crockarell) and baby Sam. Everything changes when Abbie brings home a deer carcass in their truck (it was an accident…sure…). But they get much more than fresh venison. Then Ben observes some strange stuff. Ty’s in a stupor while Abbie’s wardrobe goes from “biker chick chic” (jean shorts, heavy metal T’s, and plaid) to flowing sundresses (with prominent crimson coloring). Ben discovers that Dillon is sleeping in one of the kids’ rental boats. And that baby’s awful quiet now. It all adds up to a sinister plot, but how can Ben get anybody, Mallory and especially his pop Liam to believe him? And what can he do before “whatever’s out there” gets to him?
At first, Howard appears to be doing a riff on the clean-cut all-American teen trapped in a supernatural web, but Ben seems to have his own inner demons. He sports an arm cast through most of the story, making us curious until midway in the film when he reveals that a botched drug theft (the opioid crisis rears its ugly head) caused it. His parents’ split has done some damage, as he lashes out, verbally berating his “laid back” papa, giving a Ben a “chip on his shoulder”. Even before he’s aware of the creepshow next door, he both hates the rich taunting “townies” and wishes he were part of their orbit. Curda’s quite charming as his best bud, “sounding board” and caper cohort (a mix of Daphne and Velma). Mallory’s a likable take on the “girl next door” (or work-pal) who helps ground Ben during some of his manic rants. Jones makes Liam a sympathetic single dad, especially when he gifts Ben with a bicycle (it’s got a basket already) and learns that his ex has already promised him her old car. Luckily he gets his confidence back in order to deal with his boy’s erratic behavior. The cast’s other stand-out is the main villain. Mahler’s Abbie seems to be the ultimate “cool mom”, who can rock a cradle while suiting up for a motorcycle jaunt. Then it’s as though she’s taken a variation of Jeykll’s formula. Without raising her voice, Abbie’s running ‘the show”, gliding from room to room, and house to house, purring threats to Ben through a flimsy screen door as she floats away in her billowy long red dresses (or is it a shroud). Ole’ Ty doesn’t stand a chance against her new sultry sinister self.
With their first film since the 2011 zombie flick DEADHEADS, the brothers Pierce (Drew T. and Brett) have crafted an engaging homage to the VHS classics, which probably were stacked around the family VCR. That’s not to say that their script is a Frankenstein cut and stitch job since the plot does go in several surprising directions (a late in the third act “curveball” is quite a risky jolt of energy). And their direction has just the right balance of atmosphere (can’t go wrong with the woods and all those dark dank basements) and frantic action set pieces (with that arm cast Ben is a challenged protagonist). Yes, it’s a bit bloody, but there’s also buckets of oozing dark sludge that fill the screen. Speaking of balance, the Pierces do use some nifty CG effects while giving us some variations of the type of practical make-ups inspired by the 82′ THING and the original HOWLING (Baker, Bottin, and Savini would be pleased). And there’s a bit of Hitchcock-style paranoia as Ben fails to convince any adults of his observations (a tip to another 80s classic, the original FRIGHT NIGHT and a nod to REAR WINDOW). The only time the story really stumbles is with a clumsy pool prank on Ben which takes us away from Abbie’s antics. And though both actors are terrific, there’s little romantic chemistry between the Ben and Mallory characters, as they work better as a Hardy boy teamed with Nancy Drew. But that’s a minor quibble because THE WRETCHED really delivers those “old school” thrills and chills. And, as always, don’t go in the basement!!!
3 out of 4
THE WRETCHED opens May 1 at drive-ins everywhere. It is also streaming through digital and cable platforms including VOD, iTunes, VUDU, Amazon Prime, GooglePlay, and YouTube