The Wretched (2019) at Fantasia and FrightFest 2019
“This movie just got good,” declares troubled 17-year-old Ben (John-Paul Howard) into his smartphone, in Brett and Drew Pierce’s The Wretched. While Ben is claiming to Mallory (Piper Curda), on the other end of the phone, that what keeps distracting him from their conversation is a film that he is watching on Netflix, in fact he is sitting in the dark on his room’s balcony, spying with binoculars on his suspiciously behaving neighbours. It is a complicated scene, as genre elements – not just the supernatural goings-on across the way, but also the obvious influence of Alfred Hitchcock’s voyeuristic Rear Window (1954) – intrude upon Ben’s (and the viewer’s) contemporary reality.
Unlike the movie that Ben pretends to be watching, The Wretched is good right from its creepy opening sequence, in which a teenaged girl finds the young child that she is supposed to babysit being devoured in the basement by a terrifying female creature that then turns on her. Cut to 35 years later, and we meet Ben, still in emotional freefall from his parents’ recent separation, and carrying his broken left arm in a cast as a signifier of his abiding trauma. Ben has moved in for the summer with his father Liam (Jamison James) at smalltown Porter Bay, and is trying to reconstruct the fragments of his dissolving family. “Hey sweetie,” we hear his mother say on the phone to him, “starting to think you’re forgetting about me.” Certainly Liam is trying to forget: Ben finds an old family photo that the father has carefully folded to erase the presence of the mother. Indeed, Liam has begun seeing another woman, Sara (Azie Tesfai) – something that gives the adolescent Ben conflicted feelings, as he struggles to know whether to respond like a child or an adult to this new woman in Liam’s life.
At the same time, the malevolent shapeshifting creature from the film’s prologue reemerges from the woods and infiltrates the family living next door, dressing itself in the skin of mother Abbie (Zarah Mahler) and preying hungrily on the family’s younger members while casting a spell of forgetfulness over Abbie’s husband. The parallels here are obvious: Ben too is concerned that his mother is being supplanted by an outsider, and much as his research (on ‘Witchypedia’) reveals the invasive entity next door to be a folkloric arboreal ‘dark mother’, Sara is conspicuously African-American (in contrast to Ben’s own white, blonde mother). So while the rapacious, home-wrecking creature is, within the film, utterly reified and real, it also comes with an obvious psychological aspect, reflecting Ben’s inner anxieties as he tries to negotiate an unsettling new future for himself in a family structure that has recently been uprooted, and as he develops along the way a deep distrust of women.
Where the Pierce brothers’ first feature DeadHeads (2011) refreshingly revived stale zombie tropes as unconventional buddy comedy, The Wretched offers a more serious brand of horror, going right back to the roots of the genre’s family tree. The orchestral suspense of Devin Burrows’ score, the incredible creature effects, the constant sense of peril and a very well-handled twist mark the film as absolutely top-notch terror – but it is the buried subtext that, once unearthed, makes The Wretched truly unforgettable. And for a film so preoccupied with watching, the unseen, the overlooked and the erased prove just as essential.
© Anton Bitel