While it’s a bummer that all the new releases we’ve been eagerly awaiting keep getting pushed back, one thing that this COVID-induced hiatus has allowed for is the opportunity for smaller indie flicks to have a better chance at being seen. Not all of them are worth the time of course, but if you’re in the mood for something on the creepy side, I’d say The Wretched is worth checking out. It’s also interesting to note that this flick technically took the top box office spot back in May when it was originally released.
That said, this flick is derivative as hell. As you watch it, you’ll be reminded of a bunch of other flicks – the most obvious one being the 1985 cult classic Fright Night. But instead of the bratty teenage boy spying on the vampire next door, it’s the bratty teenage boy spying on the witch next door. In this case, the bratty teenage boy is Ben (John-Paul Howard), who’s being shipped off to his dad’s (Jamison Jones) place for the summer. Ben’s not thrilled about it, just like he’s not thrilled about his parents being divorced. And he complains from the minute he arrives about everything, from the TV not being HDMI-compatible to the present Dad buys him – a bicycle. With a basket. Admittedly, not a terribly “cool” gift.
But things begin to look up as Ben starts his job with his dad, running boat rentals at the nearby lake. He meets fellow harbor helper Mallory (Piper Curda) – a cute girl with a funky style and a big attitude. And there’s the next-door neighbors whom he also finds interesting, Abbie (Zarah Mahler) and Ty (Kevin Bigley), a young couple of rockers with a baby and an older son, Dillon (Blane Crockarell). Ben spies on them at night, thinking he’s gonna get a free show since they leave their curtains open. But the crying baby makes sure nothing interesting happens.
One day, while Abbie and Dillon are out hiking in the nearby woods, Dillon wanders away from Mom long enough to find a strange, scary-looking tree. A voice calls to him from the deep, dark cave underneath – a voice that sounds like his mother’s but isn’t. It’s the voice of a witch, who not only lives in the woods, but is apparently made of the woods as well – part tree, part rock, part soil – and all evil. Little does Abbie know that when she decides to bring home a stag that they hit with their truck, the witch hitches a ride too – emerging that night from the stag’s gut, after Abbie’s tried unsuccessfully to butcher it herself.
Noises wake Ben up – sounds of something scurrying along the roof. He goes out to investigate, following the noises to the neighbor’s, where he spots a big, chewed-up hole in the porch lattice. He sees a raccoon crawling around, but he also catches sight of the witch hovering on the porch rail. It’s a fleeting glimpse, though, gone as soon as Ty turns the lights on, asking him what the hell he’s doing. Ben leaves, but he knows he saw something. And that night, the witch makes a quick meal out of the baby – and when Abbie goes to check on him the witch snatches her too, making Abbie into her new host.
Dillon and Ben are the only ones who notice the weirdness, though – like the fact that the baby’s missing and nobody seems to care – or more correctly, remember that the baby ever existed. Seems that’s one of the witch’s other powers: to make people forget those she’s taken away from them. She’s also put the whammy on Ty so that he becomes a mindless drone who’s content to just barbecue and mow the lawn all day.
Meanwhile, Ben’s also dealing with the fact that his dad has a new girlfriend (who also just happens to work for him). He’s not thrilled about it, but he suggests that he meet Sara (Azie Tesfai). So Dad invites her over for dinner that night – but then Ben pulls a total brat move and bails on the meeting to go party with Mallory instead. It’s all fun and games and blossoming love between Mallory and Ben until the local clique of “cool” kids decides to pull a prank and have their hot chick (Gabriela Quezada Bloomgarden) lure Ben into the pool and steal his underwear. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for poor Ben, but then you remember what a brat he is.
Back at the neighbors’, things are getting weirder as Dillon notices that one of his pet rabbits has disappeared. He goes looking for Abbie, only to find her standing naked in front of the window, her body making all kinds of sickening noises as she twitches and her joints pop. She turns her eyes toward him and then locks herself in the bedroom.
Meanwhile, Ben hitches a ride home from work with Sara, giving them the opportunity to chat. Ben attempts to stutter out an apology for calling her “some b*tch” his dad’s sleeping with. Sara decides to give him another chance as long as he promises to give her vegan casserole a try, which he happily agrees to. But when he gets home, Ben finds a terrified Dillon and his remaining rabbit hiding in his bedroom. And when Abbie shows up at the door looking for him, Dillon says not to let her in. Things get tense until Ty shows up and takes Dillon home. He tries telling Ty that “Mom’s acting weird,” but Ty just brushes it off. Of course, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that Dillon would go back home and downplay his Mom’s behavior to just being “weird,” but whatever.
When Dillon doesn’t show up for his sailing lesson the next day, Ben goes looking for him. He breaks into the house via the cellar, where he finds a frightening effigy made out of sticks and twigs from the woods and the stag’s skull (very much like the one in The Ritual). Ben also finds photographs stuck in it, pictures of the family – and a picture of Mallory’s family, too. He realizes that Abbie plans to snatch Mallory’s little sister, Lily (Ja’layla Washington). So he calls Mallory only to discover that she’s already forgotten that she has a sister.
Ben takes the basket-bike and pedals like crazy to get to the playground to save Lily. However, the locals show up again and start beating him up. He manages to get away, but not before Abbie disappears into the woods with Lily. Ben chases after her and finds the scary tree with the cave. He tries to pull Lily out, but the witch is stronger and snatches her away, causing Ben to fall backwards and knock himself out on a rock.
By the time Ben wakes up and gets back home, he finds the cops there talking to his dad, who’s furious that Ben broke into the neighbors’ house and got in a fight. Sara then tries talking to Ben, who notices something odd – the flowers in a glass by her suddenly wither and die. And she’s putting milk in her tea. Remembering Sara’s vegan-ness, Ben chucks a salt shaker at her. Why? Because he’s already done the requisite internet search and found out all he needs to know about witches from an oh-so-reliable site called Witchipedia. She reacts violently to it, revealing herself as the witch’s new host.
Of course, when exactly the witch made the jump from Abbie to Sara isn’t clear at all. The only indication we get is a scene of Abbie examining herself and discovering that her skin’s rotting and her teeth are falling out. Still, it doesn’t seem like she would’ve had any opportunity to switch bodies. But anyway, so Ben grabs a knife and swipes at her just as his dad comes in and sees it. And as a truly screwed Ben gets hauled off by the cops, he pleads with his dad to go check the cellar. Sara tries to keep his dad from leaving the house, but he insists on being with Ben. And then as he’s starting up the car, he decides to go investigate the neighbors’ house after all.
Meanwhile, Ben realizes that the cop who’s supposed to be transporting him to the station is under the witch’s spell and driving him out to the beach. Once there, the cop hauls Ben out to the water to drown him. Ben manages to pull himself out of the water but then the cop pulls his gun on him. Ben pleads with the cop, who struggles to wrestle his own mind out of the witch’s control. He decides the only way is to shoot himself.
Ben’s dad heads over to the neighbors’ cellar and finds it empty. He then spots Ty going into the shed. Dad follows him and is horrified to discover Ty’s hung himself and Abbie’s bloody corpse is in front of a new shrine to the woods. But then Sara sneaks up behind him and literally stabs him in the back. She’s about to finish him off when Ben shows up and shows off his unusual skill with a gun, shooting Sara with enough rounds to kill her.
Now up until this point, the story’s shown quite a few plot holes. However, from here on in, it goes from a bunch of small holes to one giant one you could drive a truck through. So remember the whole thing about the witch being able to make people forget their loved ones’ existence? Well, at some point during all this, Ben’s forgotten that he has a little brother named Nathan (Judah Abner Paul). But something about getting in the car with his Dad makes him suddenly remember. Yeah, I dunno either. But anyway, so Ben goes back to the woods with Mallory, who’s suddenly remembered her sister Lily. They find the cave and Ben tells Mallory to make a salt circle around the tree to keep the witch trapped. He tell her that if he doesn’t come back in 10 minutes, to burn the tree down.
Brave Ben goes down into the cave with a rope and begins his search. He finds the witch feasting on poor little Dillon before disappearing with him. Ben keeps looking and finds Nathan trapped in a cocoon-type thing (a lot like the processing station in Aliens) and frees him, sending him up the rope. He then goes looking for Lily and finds her, too – but the witch springs up behind them and attacks. Ben manages to get Lily out, but the witch grabs a hold of him and tries to drag him down. She almost wins, but then Dad comes speeding up in the car and runs smack into the tree, saving the day.
So all’s well that ends well, and Ben’s family’s all back together. Ben’s mom (Amy Waller) comes to drive him and Nathan home and Dad to his brother’s to recuperate. Ben says a sweet goodbye to Mallory, who gives him a flower. He gives her a big, fat kiss and they part ways. But then, as he’s riding along in the car, he looks at the flower she gave him – it’s fake. Ben suddenly remembers the thing about the flowers dying around the witch. Cut to a shot of Mallory out on a boat with a bunch of kids who think they’re going fishing. But as we stay on Mallory’s expression, we see her smile disappear and her eyes going dead. Dun-dun-DUN! And – that’s it. And when exactly did the witch find time to take Mallory over? No idea.
So like I said, this flick takes ideas from a ton of other movies – part Fright Night, part The Ritual, part Blair Witch Project among others, and chucks them all into the blender. Even the title’s about as miscellaneous as it gets. And the resulting story sacrifices making sense for throwing in random twists – undoubtedly trying to give the flick an M. Night Shyamalan kind of vibe on top of everything else it’s trying to be.
So even though the flick has its good points, it never realizes its own unique potential. That said though, even with its issues, The Wretched is a fun way to spend an hour and a half. It has some terrific creature makeup effects and definite gross-out moments that elevate it above most of the recent so-called “horror” flicks that are plenty moody and creepy but don’t manage to be truly scary. The Wretched almost gets there, and that makes it worth a look.
Written and Directed by: Brett Pierce, Drew Pierce
Release Date: May 1, 2020
Run Time: 1 hr 35 min
Distributor: IFC Midnight