Grayson Lazarus on Brett and Drew Pierce’s ‘The Wretched’ (2019)
The burgeoning horror fiction reader has to round a difficult corner in their teenage genre journey. When the fear of a ghoul supersedes the fear of a strict parent, where should one search for the next level of fright beyond the infantile appeal of a spooky werewolf next door? The beginning heel turn between the kiddie kitsch of the Goosebumps franchise, where prepubescent protagonists dread the scorn of being sent to bed without supper, and Stephen King, where fear stalks one’s adult journey towards a degrading minimum wage job in rural Maine, manifests in the narrative of The Wretched, which structurally mimics a quasi young-adult story without being a direct adaptation.
Within the familiar framework of a teen in a new town turning his suspicions towards his creepy neighbours, director siblings Brett Pierce and Drew T. Pierce present the usual suspects of cliches in quick succession. Ben (John-Paul Howard)—whose upper-middle-class parents have recently separated—comes to live with his father in a community that thrives on the summer atmosphere of small-town New England. While employed at the local marina, Ben meets a cute love interest, mean bullies, and the serious hottie, all of which play a role in defeating a demon that lives next door.
The strength of The Wretched lies in the protagonist’s freedom. Unweighted by the complexities of financial independence, but uninterested in concern felt by his parents, teenage Ben simultaneously makes relatable mistakes while being more proactive than his father when recognising the community’s peril. Ben’s faults are plentiful—sneaking out to parties, refusing concerned calls from both guardians, and drunkenly calling his father’s girlfriend a bitch—but he protects the neighbour’s son even when other adults seemingly won’t. Teenagers may find Ben’s relationship with independence refreshing and empowering, while the brief snippets of humanity in the reserved teenage shtick offer more for a viewer with true lived experience to appreciate. In particular, Ben’s interest in de-escalating potential arguments with his father—which constitute Howard’s more subtle moments—present an authorial concern in capturing a moment in youth that’s comparably fragile than standard young adult fiction. There’s an honour in being a teenager.
The film’s horror finds itself between scares where indulgent gore will playfully prod those yet to be desensitised and the uncompromising body horror that secretly revels is watching neck muscles contort. Between Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, Krampus) and Suspiria (2018) lies a creature that crawls inside the skin of attractive women, kills children, and corrupts men like a succubus whose rotting flesh is barely hidden.
Yet, the film’s structure undercuts the impact of the monster’s presence, as an early sequence involving an attacked babysitter reveals the insignia, design, and power of the monster. The sustained digressions with the destruction of the neighbour’s nuclear family reveal tactics too early, as close-ups of a now mouldy mother whispering in her husband’s ear become self-explanatory to more advanced viewers. To the filmmakers, an interest in appealing to a younger audience means a need to spoon-feed information. Although leaving little to the coveted horror unknown, rhetorical explanations of the creature’s motivation are thankfully spared, as little deflates the intimidating potential of a fang bearing beast than reams of jargon detailing when they may and may not strike.
Set pieces and fleeting visuals, involving twitching monsters and hypnotised lackeys terrorising the community, each have kernels of formal rigour that recall the tropes of the foolishly named “elevated horror.” When contrasted with their A24 counterparts, the Pierce brothers reign in the vibrating string sections and slow zooms on distant disturbing images, using them when effective. Unlike Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz (Goodnight Mommy, The Lodge), these filmmakers do not subscribe to the idea that the vision of the genre established by The Shining (1980) is the final word on what contemporaries can achieve. This flattens its more mundane and rote moments, which are presented with static and subdued camerawork—some will describe it as visually plain—but consequently makes the horror stand out as especially disconcerting when the presence of the uncanny seemingly alters the form.
This display of control is where The Wretched finds a groove amongst its contemporaries in both the indie and widely marketed. Beyond its lack of jump scares and distinct idiosyncrasies, it’s hardly bombastic or self-congratulatory. Unlike its indulgent counterparts that frequently dominate the supposed “best horror films of the decade” list (consider Midsommar) the form and narrative complement each other appropriately to produce work that lacks pretension and meets its tepid goal of producing conventionally appealing and accessible fare.
The Wretched has been available across digital platforms since 8th May 2020 and will be available on home video 29th June 2020.