2020, NR, 96 min. Directed by Brett Pierce, Drew T. Pierce. Starring John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Jamison Jones, Zarah Mahler, Azie Tesfai, Kevin Bigley, Madelynn Stuenkel.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 1, 2020
In horror, there is BAC and AAC: Before and after Angela Carter. Her seminal and still unmatched revisionist horror anthology The Bloody Chamber was vital in reappraising the monster as protagonist, and repainting the traditional princes and princesses as less innocent and noble than they seemed. The biggest beneficary of that reappraisal was the witch of traditional folk tales, and reassessing her as the victim of the patriarchy (put simply, no Angela Carter, no Maleficent).
But there's a difference between the witch and the hag, and the gap between the two has often been blurred. Yet the witch is the reflection of the wise woman; the hag is a primal force that only looks like a human, and even then it just stole that surface - either through a glamour or, as in the delicious supernatural horror The Wretched, by stealing the skin of mortals, so they may parade through the world and pluck children into thin air. They personify not a fear of the other, but of the wild places, the bogs and forests and moors that will swallow you whole, never to be seen. Only the Wretch, The Wretched's ever-hungry, ever-malicious force of evil, is hiding in plain sight, right next door to teen loser Ben (Howard). He's been sent by his mother to spend the summer with his estranged father (Jones) at his lakeside docks, tending to the needs of the rich kids. He thinks it will be a boring time, maybe interrupted by mooning over his acerbic workmate, Mallory (Curda), but then the Wretch decides to get gruesome in the house next door.
The Wretched may be guilty of stealing shamelessly from Rear Window, Disturbia, and the best summercamp slasher and small-town supernatural chillers, but none of those were exactly raw innovators, either. What makes them memorable is that they knew exactly how to twist the right nerves, and so do filmmaking siblings Brett and Drew T. Pierce. They squeeze every drop of tension sweat and jump-out-of-your-seat Friday night shock out of the simple set-up, ramped up by the way no one believes Ben (a knock-it-out-of-the-park everyteen performance from Midnight, Texas' Howard). After all, why would they believe the screw-up with a broken arm, a self-inflicted injury with a very inglorious history?
But there's never any doubt that he's right to warn everyone, as a flashback opening to a previous and very bloody child murder shows. This monster in the woods is a classic slithering, supurating, long-clawed, sharp-fanged, bone-grinder of a monster. Designed by Drew Pierce and drawing from a multitude of mythologies, the Wretch appears in a multitude of forms - mainly under the skin of Zarah Mahler as the poor neighbor whose skin becomes the Wretch's disguise (a wonderful double-faced peformance), but finally in a wonderfully eerie monster performance by Madelynn Stuenkel.
As a contemporary riff on a very retro form, it stands with Summer of 84, and Super Dark Times (two of the best underrated teen horrors of the last decade) and A Dark Song and The Hole In the Ground (ditto, but for supernatural shockers) as a film that absolutely deserves to be seen. Smart, lean, nasty in all the right ways, and with a killer payoff, The Wretched is a monster that you'll want to let into your home.