★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Reminding us that witches are supposed to be scary.
Directed by Brett Pierce and Drew Pierce.
Oh, the Fantasia International Film Festival. When it comes to genre film festivals, Fantasia is the biggest in North America and ranks right up there with all of the top festivals in the world. If your film gets selected for a showing here, you know you’ve produced something special.
And “something special” easily describes The Pierce Brothers’ latest movie, The Wretched. Coming eight years after their first feature film, Deadheads (2011), this spooky sophomore effort reunites the duo as they share both writing and directing credits. The result is a genuinely creepy modern day fairy tale.
The film follows the summertime adventures of 17 year old Ben [John-Paul Howard; 14 Cameras (2018)] who’s in a bit of a rebellious phase as he deals with his parent’s immanent divorce. He moves in with his father, Liam [Jamison Jones; TV’s True Detective (2015)], for the summer and gets a job working for his dad at the local marina.
Ben begins to notice strange things about next door neighbor Abbie [Zarah Mahler; Nightmare Cinema (2018)] and her small family. Particularly when her young son, Dillon [Blane Crockarell; Autumn (2017)], seems terrified of his mother and then mysteriously disappears.
Occasionally eliciting the help of his co-worker and summertime love interest, Mallory [Piper Curda; TV’s Youth & Consequences (2018)], Ben tries to figure out what’s going on — while also trying to convince people he’s not losing his marbles.
What’s going on, of course, is witchcraft! And this ain’t no Disney-made Hocus Pocus witch neither. The witch in The Wretched — spectacularly played by Madelynn Stuenkel — is more the embodiment of ancient malevolence than a cackling, green skinned, cauldron stirrer. She’s feral, predatory, driven by instinct, and she has…. let’s just say… some unsavory dietary requirements.
The sound and music departments for The Wretched deserve extra gold stars. Not only was the score and other incidental music great, but the sound effects were used exceptionally well. In particular, the cracking sounds of the witch as she reconfigured herself were wonderfully creepy.
Cinematography was spot-on and included some fun camera angles which added to the feeling of the witch’s otherworldliness. The shot from under the truck as she first “arrives” at the neighbor’s house and the great shot steeply angled down the stairs while Abbie stood at Ben’s front door stuck with me in particular.
Acting-wise, in addition to Ms. Stuenkel’s stellar performance as the disturbing antagonist, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the work of Zarah Mahler and Piper Curda. Both women were exceptional in their roles.
The pacing of The Wretched was tight, but there were a couple odd editing choices that briefly pulled me out of the experience. I suspect it had more to do with the sheer number of people in the movie than anything else. Trying to keep tabs on everyone while they’re all in different locations can add up to a lot of editing.
That over-population of characters also made the beginning of the movie rather confusing. Do we care about the neighbors? Are the bullies important? What’s the main character’s name again? It’s possible this was a stylistic choice allowing the viewer to share Ben’s feeling of being overwhelmed after moving to a new place, but it was still confusing. However, once you figure out who the five or six essential people are and realize that the roaming band of marina bullies were all but superfluous, things get a lot easier.
Speaking of the beginning of the film, The Wretched starts out with a flashback showing us something that happened in the neighborhood 35 years ago. And while it was excellent and very disturbing footage, I was left wondering what it was for. Nobody talked about it during the rest of the film. It seemed like it was just offered up without explanation. Presumably, it was meant to introduce the witch but, even then, it didn’t tell us much. But who am I to quibble over some bonus creepitude? The more the merrier!
Overall, The Wretched is a definite must-see and should be added to your watch list. It’s obvious why it was picked to be shown in such a prestigious genre festival and, on a more personal note, it’s got me looking forward to more movies about witches!
Thank you, Pierce Brothers, for making witches scary again.
PS: Just in case you weren’t able to catch it during its world premiere at Fantasia 2019, we’ll keep our ears to the ground and give you a heads up about future showings or its streaming release.
Review by Robert Zilbauer.