The Terrifying Tale of a Dark Mother Who Feasts on Human Flesh
Need a new horror film to watch while self-isolation? “The Wretched,” out on-demand May 1, contains plenty of bone-crunching scares.
The Wretched boasts more squelching, shrieking and cracking than just about any horror movie in recent memory. Rarely do five minutes go by without one of those sickening noises making an appearance on its soundtrack, the better to herald the arrival of its signature beast and, in the process, to amplify suspense for a forthcoming fatality. It’s a chilling audioscape of snapping and contorting limbs, gooey dripping and gurgling, and ancient whispering and screeching, and it proves the unnerving calling card of this sturdy new horror effort, which is elevated by both its unholy cacophony, as well as its refusal to treat its main characters as simply one-dimensional fodder for its malevolent fiend.
Written and directed by brothers Brett and Drew Pierce, The Wretched (premiering on VOD May 1) suggests the madness it has in store for audiences from the start, with a 30-years-earlier prelude in which a young girl arrives at an afternoon babysitting job during a rainstorm—the house’s front lawn littered with discarded children’s playthings—and finds, in the basement, a family photo with the father’s face scratched out, and the matriarch munching on one of her daughters. Attempting to flee, she’s stopped by the man of the house, who locks her down below by closing a door decorated with a pagan-ish symbol of an upside-down triangle whose extended lines make it resemble a demon’s head.
In the present day, Ben (John-Paul Howard) arrives at the home of his dad Liam (Jamison Jones), who’s recently divorced Ben’s mom and taken in his teenage son for the summer. Ben’s broken left arm is in a cast, and The Wretched gradually reveals that the cause of this injury—and the reason for Ben’s exile to this summertime outpost—as a prior break-in to a neighbor’s home in search of Vicodin. Though clearly troubled and bitter about the disintegration of his family, as well as Liam’s dating of co-worker Sara (Azie Tesfai), Ben nonetheless accepts a job at his dad’s marina. There, he meets Mallory (Piper Curda), an outgoing colleague who shows immediate interest in him, even as his eyes begin wandering to a local beauty spied on a boat with a bunch of local douchebags.
The Pierce Brothers take their time setting up Ben’s circumstances while simultaneously turning their attention to Ben’s neighbors, a vacationing clan led by Abbie (Zarah Mahler). During a woodland hike, Abbie’s son Dillon (Blane Crockarell) stumbles upon a giant tree with an ominous vine-ensnared hollow at its base, from which he hears his mother’s voice beckoning to him, first with sweetness and then with malevolent hostility. Back at home, Abbie’s husband Ty (Kevin Bigley) is surprised to learn that, on her drive home, Abbie collided with a giant deer, and she intends to slice and dice it for dinner. More surprising for everyone, however, is the creature that literally crawls out of the deer carcass and into their residence, where it preys upon their infant child and, shortly thereafter, on Abbie, who’s dragged beneath a baby crib and horribly corrupted.
Though Abbie’s transformation spells trouble ahead, The Wretched is patient about getting down to truly terrifying business. Center stage is Ben’s fragile emotional state thanks to his parents’ split, and when faced with the prospect of having to share a meal with his dad and Sara, he instead heads out to a party with Mallory. A combination of drunkenness and nastiness— he latter delivered by the aforementioned hottie, who pulls a skinny-dipping prank on him—compounds Ben’s problems, and make him even less trustworthy in the eyes of Liam. Thus, when Dillon suddenly asks Ben to protect him from his mom (who’s acting severely creepy), and then vanishes without a trace, it’s difficult for the teenager to convince anyone that the neighbors are no longer what they appear to be.
The Wretched most certainly is what it appears to be, but that’s not an impediment to its effectiveness. The Pierce Brothers treat Ben, Mallory and Liam’s problems with earnestness and respect, thereby making them worth rooting for. At the same time, the directors build tension methodically, using sights of a naked Abbie cracking and snapping herself into fully upright standing position, and of inhuman hands tearing their way out of fleshy cavities, to keep the mood menacing and macabre. Better still, they have no interest in outright explaining the origins of their evil; rather, the only things to be gleaned about this inexplicable phenomena come via a quick Internet search by Ben (on “Witchypedia”) that informs him about “a dark mother” who was “born from root, rock and tree” and “feasts upon the forgotten.”
There are scant jump scares lurking throughout The Wretched, but plenty of nicely composed visuals courtesy of cinematographer Conor Murphy, who strikes an ideal balance between shrouding the creature in murky shadows (the better to leave its true form to one’s imagination, at least until the finale) and providing just enough glimpses to keep one’s nerves on edge. As befitting a story set in a sleepy vacation community, there’s a creepy stillness to the film’s camerawork, which is nicely married to regular audio bursts of squishy, scrunching hellishness. While one occasionally wishes the Pierce Brothers would pick up the pace a bit—the middle passages are a tad light on meaningful action, to the detriment of the story’s momentum—their control of the material is confident and consistent, right up to a climax that enhances the narrative’s focus on mothers and children with primordial birth-womb imagery.
The Wretched’s interest in procreation, parentage and memory is further underscored by a final twist that forces one to reconsider everything that’s come before, and to its credit, that rug-pulling device feels like a natural extension of the film’s thematic preoccupations. It’s also, more fundamentally, an entertaining closing gesture for a genre work that understands that scares are immensely tough to generate if those in peril aren’t worth caring about—and that ageless monsters are most compelling when they sound as disgusting as they look.