Review: ‘The Wretched,’ starring John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Azie Tesfai, Zarah Mahler, Kevin Bigley and Jamison Jones

May 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

John-Paul Howard in “The Wretched” (Photo courtesy of IFC Midnight)

“The Wretched”

Directed by Brett Pierce and Drew Pierce

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city in Michigan, the horror flick “The Wretched” has a predominantly white cast (with some African American and Asian representation) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A troubled teen who goes to live with his divorced father for the summer thinks there’s something sinister going on at the house next door, but no one believes him.

Culture Audience: “The Wretched” will appeal primarily to horror fans who like bloody gore and stories about evil spirits, but the movie does little to dispel the negative stereotype that horror movies have terribly written screenplays.

Madelyn Stunenkel in “The Wretched” (Photo courtesy of IFC Midnight)

“The Wretched” had the potential to be a critically acclaimed breakout in a sea of low-budget, predictable horror movies. Unfortunately, “The Wretched” (written and directed by brothers Brett Pierce and Drew Pierce) devolves into an incoherent mess in the last 20 minutes of the film, thereby wasting the potential that it had in the beginning of the story. “The Wretched” has some impressively scary imagery, given the film’s low budget, but it’s not enough to overcome the movie’s laughably bad ending.

In the production notes for “The Wretched,” the 1985 children’s adventure movie “The Goonies” and Roald Dahl’s 1983 dark fantasy novel “The Witches” are cited as influences on “The Wretched.” The Pierce Brothers also say in the production notes that the evil spirt in the movie (called The Wretch) was inspired by witchy folklore such as Black Annis (from England) and the Boo Hag (from the Appalachian Mountains). Being derivative isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a movie to be if the “inspired by” aspects of the film are elevated by good direction, acting, and screenwriting. “The Wretched” falls short with its screenwriting.

The movie begins “35 years ago,” as it says on screen, where a teenage girl wearing a Sony Walkman goes to a house in a quiet suburban neighborhood in an unnamed Michigan city. (The movie was actually filmed on location in Northport, Michigan.) Based on what’s seen in this brief scene, she appears to be a babysitter. The house is silent and apparently empty, but the movie’s foreboding musical score by Devin Burrows signals that something terrible is about to happen.

A family photo in the house shows that a man and a woman live there with their pre-teen daughter, who looks to be about 7 or 8 years old. But there’s something odd about the photo: There’s an “x” mark scratched on the man’s face. The unnamed teen makes her way to the house’s cellar, where she encounters something bloody and terrifying: The mother, who now looks like a grotesque witch-like creature, is hunched over the daughter and chewing away at the child’s neck to the point where the daughter is almost de-capitated. The teenager screams and tries to leave, only to see that the father is at the top of the cellar stairs, as he slams the door and locks the teenager inside.

The movie then fast forwards to “five days ago,” when the protagonist of the story is introduced. His name is Ben Shaw (played by John-Michael Howard), a 17-year-old who has arrived by bus to live in the area with his divorced dad, Liam Shaw (played by Jamison Jones), for the summer. It’s later revealed in the story that Ben is a teen with a troubled past, and he’s been sent by his mother to temporarily live with his father, in the hopes that it will help Ben straighten out his life.  Ben has a cast on his left arm, and it has something to do with some trouble he got into when he was living with his mother, who’s not seen in the movie but can be heard having phone conversations with Ben.

As soon as Ben arrives at this father’s modest house, it’s obvious that Liam hasn’t spent much time raising Ben, because Ben gives him a kid’s bicycle as a gift. Ben says that he has his driver’s license and that his mother is planning to buy him a car. A sheepish Liam apologizes and admits that he didn’t realize how much Ben had grown up since the last time they saw each other.

Liam works as a manager of a local marina called Porter Bay, where he’s gotten Ben a part-time job as a deckhand who can also give sailing lessons to kids. They live in a seaside city that has a lot of vacation homes owned by the type of people who also have their own boats docked at the marina. Ben soon encounters a privileged group of teen vacationers, led by an arrogant bully named Gage (played by Richard Ellis), who immediately tries to make Ben feel inferior by bossing him around.

During his first day on the job, Ben also meets a friendly co-worker named Mallory (played by Piper Curda), who’s around the same age as Ben is. She teases Ben about the nepotism that got him the job, because he says under other circumstances, someone with an arm cast wouldn’t be able to get such a physically demanding job at the marina. Ben and Mallory have the kind of slightly flirtatious banter that indicates that they could end up dating each other. Mallory has a younger sister named Lily (played by Ja’layah Washington), who’s about 9 or 10 years old and who hangs out a lot at the marina when Mallory is there.

One day while on the job, Ben sees his father Liam romantically kissing a woman near one of the docked boats. It’s the first time that Ben is aware that his father has a girlfriend. Later, when he mentions to Liam that he saw him with this woman he doesn’t know about, Liam tells Ben that her name is Sara (played by Azie Tesfai), and she also works at the marina. Ben said that he would like to meet her. Liam (looking happy and relieved that Ben is open to meeting Sara) immediately agrees and says that Sara can come to the house for dinner that night.

Meanwhile, Liam’s next-door neighbors get their own spotlight in the story. They are tattooed mother Abbie (played by Zarah Mahler), her husband Ty (played by Kevin Bigley) and their two sons—a newborn baby and a pre-teen named Dillon (played by Blane Crockarell), who looks to be about 7 or 8 years old. Abbie and Ty are the type of parents who go to Burning Man (it’s mentioned in the movie) and go to a lot of rock concerts, where they sometimes also bring Dillon.

While Abbie and Dillon are hiking together in the woods nearby, Abbie tries to deny that they’ve gotten lost. While Dillon’s mother briefly walks out of his sight range, Dillon sees a strange-looking tree with a large opening in its trunk. The opening appears to lead underground. All of sudden, he hears his mother’s voice coming from the tree and telling him to walk down into the opening.

As Dillon hesitantly approaches the tree, the voice becomes more impatient and insists that Dillon go through the opening. But then, his mother shows up behind Dillon, and he realizes that it wasn’t his mother calling him from the tree after all. When he glances back, Dillon sees that the tree has disappeared.

Meanwhile, Ben has his own strange encounters. In his first night at his father’s house, he notices what looks like a strange creature creature crawling around the next door neighbors’ front yard, near the cellar.  Ben goes there with a flashlight to investigate and sees a raccoon. But he isn’t entirely convinced that what he saw was a small animal. Just as he’s about to snoop further, Ty catches him in the front yard and asks Ben to leave.

The next day, Ben sees Dillon playing by himself in the front yard, and he strikes up a conversation with the boy. Dillon appears to be homeschooled, so he’s eager to have a “older brother” type to hang out with on occasion. Ben and Dillon end up forming a friendly, almost brotherly bond, but Ben warns Dillon to stay away from the cellar in Dillon’s house. Ben has been spying on the house and is convinced that the epicenter of the house’s evil is in the cellar.

A densely wooded area is within walking distance of both houses, so Ben is aware that whatever he saw could have come from the woods. While Ben is suspicious that something might be lurking near the houses at night, he begins to spy (using binoculars) on the neighbors’ house at night. Abbie and Ty leave their curtains open during some amorous moments, so Ben essentially becomes an unexpected Peeping Tom.

It isn’t long before something horrible and deadly happens that sets off a chain of events where Ben discovers that an evil witch spirit is on the loose. There’s an eerie symbol of the letter “A” upside-down that’s part of the mystery. And when the demonic spirit is nearby, flowers start to immediately wilt and die. Through an Internet search, Ben finds out about the legend of the Slip-Skin Hag, who is a “dark mother born from root, rock and tree” and is a “devourer of children.”

While Ben tries to figure out what to do, he’s invited to some local teen parties, where he gets closer to Mallory. The night that Ben is supposed to have dinner with Liam and Sara, Ben instead goes to one of the parties without telling Liam that he won’t be there for dinner.  Ben and Mallory get drunk and spend some time alone together, and some romantic sparks fly between the two of them. Unfortunately, just as Ben is about to lean in and kiss Mallory, he vomits. (It seems like there’s a vomit scene in almost every movie that has underage teenagers partying.)

While at the party, Ben ignores the numerous calls that he’s been getting from his father. By the time Ben comes home, Liam is furious, and they have an argument, where Ben calls Sara “that bitch you’re sleeping with.” Sara overhears Ben insult her, and she immediately leaves the house, but the argument puts a strain on Ben’s relationship with his father.  Sara and Ben eventually patch things up and make sincere efforts to be cordial to one another.

Things get even stranger after Ben comes home to unexpectedly find Dillon hiding in Ben’s bedroom. Dillon pleads with Ben not tell Dillon’s mother Abbie that he’s hiding there if Abbie comes looking for him. Of course, she does go looking for him. What happens after that is where the movie starts to derail.

The rest of the story has major plot holes where the existence of certain people in the story are denied by others, and Ben is made to feel like he’s going crazy because he seems to be the only one who remembers that these people have existed. It’s not as if Ben has any supernatural powers, but you’d have to believe that an entire community, not just one household, has collective amnesia about these “disappearing” people. And that doesn’t make sense, given that it contradicts people’s memories in later parts of the story.

As for why Ben’s father doesn’t believe Ben’s claims that something sinister is happening at the house next door, it’s explained by Ben coming home late from the parties, and his father assumes that Ben is high on drugs. Given Ben’s troubled past that’s revealed in the movie, his father’s assumption actually makes sense.

After Ben comes home from a party where he was humiliated by group prank led by Gage, something happens that leads the movie down an even more ridiculous and messy path to the point of no return. There’s a surprise plot twist at the very end that makes absolutely no sense. And the very last shot in the movie is a horror-movie cliché, since it sets up the idea that there could be a sequel. (Don’t count on a sequel, since this movie won’t be a sleeper hit or even a cult classic.)

The best parts of “The Wretched” are how the movie builds suspense for the first two-thirds of the film before the story goes downhill into incoherent, poorly edited chaos. The visual effects (which are mostly practical, since the movie doesn’t rely too heavily on CGI) give the movie its most terrifying moments, since “The Wretched” is more in-your-face horror than psychological horror. Madelyn Stunenkel plays The Wretch witch monster in the film. All of the cast’s acting in “The Wretched” is average.

“The Wretched” is the Pierce Brothers’ second feature-length film as directors, after their 2011 zombie flick “Deadheads,” which made the rounds at several film festivals that year but was never released in theaters. (“Deadheads” is now available on home video.) Brett and Drew Pierce are the sons of visual-effects artist Bart Pierce, who did uncredited work on Sam Raimi’s 1981 classic horror flick “The Evil Dead.”

Having a father with a visual-effects background partially explains why the visual effects in “The Wretched” are the more well-crafted parts of the movie. The cinematography by Conor Murphy also achieves the intended atmosphere of voyeurism and terror throughout most of the film. But setting up the right visual environment in a movie is a wasted effort if the story isn’t very good and the editing is sloppy. The Pierce Brothers show hints of potentially making a breakout film, but “The Wretched” is not that movie.

IFC Film/IFC Midnight released “The Wretched” on digital and VOD and ins select U.S. drive-in theaters on May 1, 2020.