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Wretched, The
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Fine low-budget horror."
4 stars

Anyone who’s been watching a lot of horror movies during the shutdown because they prefer to be frightened by something fun that has an end in sight may want to know about 'The Wretched.'

A second effort by the brother filmmaking team of Brett and Drew Pierce (2011’s zombie comedy Deadheads), the movie is about as comforting as a film can be that deals with an ancient witch that steps into people’s skins, kills their babies and makes them forget they ever had babies. Perhaps the grim premise is mitigated by its young heroes, who — along with Conor Murphy’s handsome widescreen compositions and Devin Burrows’ robust score — remind us of the ‘80s as seen through the magic-hour filter of Steven Spielberg. It’s all confidently crafted, even if some of the plot points could be better laid out; if you have to stop to remember why a character would have a gun, it hinders the momentum of the thrills.

The setting is both soothing (a lakeside marina where some of the characters work) and eerie (a forest that hosts a dreadful-looking tree whose existence seems conditional). Our young anti-hero is Ben (John-Paul Howard), a typical teen, smart but emotionally turbulent, moping over his parents’ divorce. This summer Ben is assisting his dad at the marina, lining up the boats at the dock just so, giving the little kids sailing lessons, along with pal-and-maybe-more Mallory (Piper Curda). Next door to Ben and his dad lives a family with mysteriously dwindling numbers. The Wretch, you see, has gotten into one of them, and … Well, the Wretch lives in the aforementioned ghastly tree, and likes to kidnap children, probably for food. I mean, why else would a Wretch want kids around?

Again, some of the storytelling leaves us in the lurch. If we’re wondering why a father seems unaware his infant child is missing, it takes us out of the movie momentarily, even if it’s explained later. When a baby is gone and his father doesn’t know or care, we need the context now or the fragile, fragile imaginative contract is broken. The explanation arrives alongside the movie’s twist, and it isn’t my favorite aspect of The Wretched, although it does pull us inside the confusion of the affected character. But much of this gets a pass from me because the leads, Howard and Curda, are so low-key appealing; Mallory is funny and sometimes seems to be tickling the film’s somber lore on its tummy, and Ben is realistically wounded but not obnoxious. We are (there’s that word again) comfortable in these kids’ company. Not only do we root for them to prevail over skin-shedding, baby-munching evil, we want them to be happy. And some of the relationship stuff — say, between Ben and his dad’s new girlfriend — feels authentic enough that we expect it to continue, until the movie reminds us it’s a horror movie and pulls us up short.

At just over an hour and a half, The Wretched doesn’t presume our patience. You didn’t ask, but my feeling is that the best horror movies work along the lines of a good horror short story — punchy, potent, to the point. And one thing the recent mode of season-long arcs in television has taught us is that if you want the equivalent (or a successful adaptation) of a horror novel, it’s best accomplished now as a season of TV, or at least a miniseries. (This isn’t new, of course; 1977’s Roots was an early “novel for television” whose story couldn’t have been told in a feature film’s two hours.) You can do things in that elongated medium that you can’t do in movies; you can develop dread in depth, and layer your characters. But pacing is as important at length as it is in works of greater brevity, and there’s a reason Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (146 minutes) is more fondly remembered than the one Stephen King himself wrote for television (273 minutes of po-faced fidelity to the source, in word if not in tone).

Anyway, The Wretched is a fine horror short story. It confines itself to a few locations and a few people; if converted to prose, it would fit nicely in an anthology alongside, say, Let the Right One In and It Follows and The Babadook and, if you insist, Hereditary. Oh, and the original 1981 Evil Dead. That this film seems to have some Sam Raimi in its quiver, in terms of theme and milieu but not style, is probably no accident; like Evil Dead, it was shot in Michigan, and the directors’ dad is Bart Pierce, who was on Evil Dead’s FX crew.

So we have here a film that more or less successfully channels Spielberg, Raimi, Grimm and Dahl. That’s not bad company to be in, either.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33362&reviewer=416
originally posted: 06/09/20 05:57:17
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  01-May-2020

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Australia
  01-May-2020




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