Horror films about witches have never really been as ubiquitous as ones about zombies, vampires, and psychopaths, but they’ve still found a steady presence on movie screens. The past few years alone have given us two of the heaviest hitters with The Witch (2015) and Suspiria (2018), and while the latest can’t touch their power or effectiveness there’s still some minor fun to be had with The Wretched.
After a brief opening set 35 years ago showing a babysitter accidentally interrupt a witch eating a toddler — it doesn’t end well for the babysitter — we jump to “5 days ago” (for some reason) and the arrival of a trouble-making teenager named Ben (John-Paul Howard) to a small coastal town. His mom has shipped him to his dad Liam’s (Jamison Jones) as both punishment and a wake-up call after getting in trouble back home, and it’s not long before he’s back in hot water. Late-night noises lead him to investigate the neighbor’s next door, and he soon comes to suspect the woman living there is a threat to her own young son. Ben’s all alone, though, as he’s burned through every bridge to that point meaning no one takes his rantings seriously until it’s too late.
The Wretched starts strong out of the gate with the toddler munching, but it only really reaches that horror movie height again a few times throughout as the story grows a bit jumbled. Writers/directors Brett & Drew T. Pierce deliver a stylishly attractive feature despite the wobbly script, though, as their witchy shenanigans and practical effects are memorable through to the end.
The witch is first glimpsed climbing out of a deer carcass, and after some creepy antics involving a baby she takes up residence inside the woman next door in interesting fashion. Rather than simply possess or wear the woman’s skin, the witch is literally inside the woman — and it makes for a pretty nifty exit later on. Her appearances in general are good stuff including an early glimpse on the neighbor’s porch. The witch’s rules and abilities are unclear, though, and that leaves viewers as unfocused and confused as Ben and the others. She takes over bodies, but sometimes she uses mind control? Why not just use that control over Ben? Where is she getting all these elaborately flowing gowns that clearly weren’t found in the neighbor’s closet? What was the deal with that opening scene? Why show Ben Googling witches if not to offer up some explanation or local legend? And while the witch’s ability to make people forget their children is interesting, the lack of detail around it lessens what should have been a much bigger shock at one point.
The film feels every bit like a riff on Tom Holland’s Fright Night (1985) with a witch taking the vampire’s place, but the similarities mostly end there as The Wretched lacks something pretty important — a likable lead character. Ben is something of a jerk from minute one, and while that’s in sync with him being troubled by his parents’ recent separation it’s something he never really recovers from. That element of the story, his family’s issues, are window dressing at best meanign we never really care about his attitude. His dad is good fun, as is the local girl (Piper Curda) who has a crush on Ben, and both performers engage with charismatic turns, but this punk is no Charley Brewster.
As mentioned, the film looks good with cinematographer Conor Murphy finding some interesting and unsettling shots of the witch in action. The script’s playfulness keeps things from getting too horrifying, though, and the back half begins throwing in all kinds of new beats that just don’t track. Worse, the script never bothers to explain anything. Not everything needs an answer, obviously, but there’s history here we’re just not getting. What’s her story? What’s that symbol mean? How even do those last two reveals make a lick of sense?
The Wretched is an easy enough watch and manages some slight thrills across its 95 minutes, but unlike the witch at its heart the film doesn’t leave viewers with much to chew on. You wouldn’t think that with all the question marks above, but viewer interest in these questions most likely ends at the end credits so take the film for what it is — a minor slice of forgettable witchy fun.