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Film Review: The Wretched

Interesting bit of box office trivia: this low budget horror movie became the first film to top the U.S. box office for six weeks running since Avatar back in 2009, a feat largely made possible by the fact that there’s a global pandemic on at the moment and there wasn’t much else competing for the patronage of those Americans brave or foolhardy enough to take a punt on a matinee.

That’s not to damn The Wretched with faint praise, though; while it can’t, of course, compete with James Cameron’s blockbuster in terms of sheer financial wherewithal and technical wizardry, this is a brisk, fun, fright flick that’s well worth a punt on a lazy evening.

Opening with an ‘80s-set prologue dripping with retro set dressing and a heavy helping of spooky supernatural WTFery, The Wretched soon settles into a narrative model not a million miles away from Tom Holland’s Fright Night (1985), wherein amiable teenager Ben (John-Paul Howard) begins to suspect that his neighbour, Abbie (Zarah Mahler), might be possessed by a witch. Or possibly the ghost of a witch? The exact nature of the occult issue at hand is a bit murky, and for Ben this is an extra problem piled onto an already full plate. He’s recently moved in with his dad (Jamison Jones) after his parents split up, and would much rather be making time with Mallory (Piper Curda), his cute co-worker at the local marina. But witches gonna witch, and as the supernatural shenanigans mount up, our guy finds himself forced to contend with more pressing issues than scoring a date.

“But tropes are not inherently bad, as the saying goes, and while The Wretched treads familiar ground, it does so with a confident gait.”

Sibling directors Brett and Drew T. Pierce, whose last feature film, 2011’s Deadheads, was an effective zombie romcom, prove that they know their way around a jump scare here, and are adept at building a rising tone of creeping unease, contrasting the increasingly outré horror elements against the everyday banality of The Wretched’s small town setting. They also know a good gore gag when they see one; when things finally hit fever pitch, The Wretched has a number of striking moments of body horror that’d do David Cronenberg proud. For all that, tonally this is not too far off retro series du jour Stranger Things, with teens forced to contend with the unnatural because the attendant adults simply don’t know what’s what. The in-universe reason for the grown-ups’ obliviousness is a neat little wrinkle, even if the rest of the plot is a little by-the-numbers.

But tropes are not inherently bad, as the saying goes, and while The Wretched treads familiar ground, it does so with a confident gait. This is a fun, pacy piece of horror cinema that should keep genre fans happy and marks the Brothers Pierce as filmmakers worth keeping an eye on.

The Wretched is out in Australia on September 2nd.