Good old fashioned horror is vital for The Wretched. The Pierce brothers, Brett and Drew Pierce, sons of The Evil Dead (1981) special effects stalwart Bart Piece, live up to their family name with a creature feature in which the principle design of the creatures is the emphasis. Blending genres, they match witchcraft with a bit of neighborly suspicion, aptly finding a sweet spot. Their film does not require so much more, in the way those old films their father worked on did not. The Wretched accomplishes effectual suspense and dread in equal measures, a line drive of a horror picture, understanding just what it is, and never betraying the sentiments of its forefathers.
John-Paul Howard plays a compelling kind of youth, a bit world weary, able to project beyond his years. When he sits with his father, played by Jamison Jones, Howard can seem as though it’s he who is the parent, providing an excellent sense for the camera, with tangible emotional range, able to rise to any needs the movie has for him. Right now, he is a great young actor, let’s watch him in four years when he is given some adult material that grows into his cinematic intellect. The father-son story is a compassionate one, where it feels inclusive, spending time in the family, and we want to be there with them around the campfire. Both characters we grow to appreciate. Piper Cuda plays an affectionate love interest, we’re able to believe in their growing summer fling, always crucial in a Disturbia (2007)-type picture.
Nextdoor lives a family that comes under the possession of witchcraft. These themes are finely balanced against a story that is actually about family dynamics and dysfunction. The horror is never really what a horror movie is about. The Pierce brothers escalate the tension with careful craft and precision. The more we see of the neighbors, layers of uncertainty unravel, until everyone understands their peculiarities. It’s a good steady build of dread. His neighbor is the alluring Zarah Mahler — it always works best when the young man has two reasons to spy — who really takes center stage, selling her sex and intrinsic evil at once. It understands this about the success of Rear Window (1954) and understands how Hitchcock bakes tension into plot devices. Matching this with the sense of balance between hormonal and horror found in Fright Night (1985), there is a sense everything comes from someplace else, but it’s put together well.
The film gets all the fundamentals precisely right. It is a studied teen horror picture that has watched all of the same movies we have. It knows its tropes inside out and does not mean to exploit them for any subversion or different benefit from what is known. A feeling of sameness, then, permeates the film. It is good fun, but that is a familiar kind of fun. We’ve been here before and so have its directors. They have a whole family history written about it.
None of this is to say The Wretched is unworthy. It knows exactly what it is and executes that beautifully. The casting is all complimentary. Even when it is a bad horror movie, it is doing it on purpose, living into a tradition, so to speak. The important thing is that the film does exactly what it means to. It provokes just the fear it desires. It’s a great thing to come just before the summer. The next generation is going to need films like The Wretched. The Pierce brothers seem like just the guys for the job.