Heavily influenced by the horror genre – especially having grown up on the set of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) due to their father being part of the film’s FX team – co-directors Brett and Drew Pierce worked as various film crew members before they took on writing and directing themselves. The Wretched, their latest film, which had its world premiere at Fantasia Festival, is described as a dark, contemporary fairy tale – and that’s exactly what it achieves.
Before The Wretched, the Pierce Brothers made some short films before writing and directing their first feature-length film Deadheads (2012), a comedy-horror that follows a coherent zombie’s quest to find his lost love. However, unlike Deadheads, the Pierce Brothers’ sophomore feature is a serious horror film – one that will propel them into the ranks of horror stardom.
The Wretched opens with a throwback to other classic horror films as we begin with a flashback: 35 years ago, a young woman arrives at a large house to babysit. Venturing down into the basement, she finds that something has taken over the mother as it feeds on the young daughter. The mother turns around to face the babysitter with her mouth covered in blood and lets out a hoarse scream. The film’s soundtrack is at its strongest here, especially as it plays ‘Wicked Gonna Come’ by Blues Saraceno and Nineoneone over the title card. This lets us know that something evil really is gonna rise.
In the present, we’re introduced to 17-year-old Ben (John-Paul Howard), who is distressed about his parents’ imminent divorce. He is staying with his father Liam (Jamison Jones) and working a summer job at the Porter Bay Mariner, where he meets new friend Mallory (Piper Curda). Living next door is a family of four, including mother Abbie (Zarah Mahler) and her young son Dillon (Blane Crockarell). Whilst exploring the woods, the pair are temporarily separated and Dillon hears something calling to him from an ancient, rotting tree. While going about his day-to-day teenage life, Ben soon realizes that something isn’t right with his neighbors and sets out to save Dillon and the rest of the town.
The Wretched doesn’t care much for backstory, which works in its favor. Instead, the story relies on us to make a connection with the inspiration it takes from Hansel and Gretel. Speaking exclusively with FilmEra, Brett Pierce said: “We were also very influenced by myths about Black Annis of the UK, Jenny Greenteeth, and the Boo Hag. We wanted to make an amalgamation of these so that The Wretch sort of fit a lot of witch myths in various cultures. We actually have a lot more mythology worked out for her but we felt it was best to give hopefully just enough and keep her in a little mystery.” This was a good decision as it keeps her on our minds as we wonder more about her origin.
Due to the various mythologies that helped to shape the Wretch, the film has an exceptionally chilling atmosphere and succeeds at creating memorable horror imagery. After Abbie hits a buck deer with her truck, she decides to cut and clean it herself. Later that evening, the centuries-old evil begins to crawl out of the carcass – a frightening image that is permanently burned into my brain. The Wretch soon possesses Abbie and her possession at times is subtle, but terribly unnerving, which is a huge credit to Mahler’s acting talent.
The film uses binary oppositions effectively, as Abbie’s possession turns her from a laid back rocker into a more feminine woman who wears pretty dresses. This plays into our expectations and further comments on the various depictions of witches who are often portrayed as either beautiful young women or ugly old hags. Whilst we see The Wretch take on Abbie’s form, we also see it in its true terrifying form with gruesome special effects makeup. It’s great to see how the film uses the bright summer setting in contrast with the houses and woods at night. It works really well and the Pierce Brothers don’t keep the entire film in darkness, allowing for the mother to be scary in the daytime.
While violent in some places, The Wretched makes good use of psychological horror. Ben learns that the evil is a “dark mother” who “feasts upon the forgotten.” The Wretch has the power to make people forget about those she has feasted upon, including family members, which plays into our deeper fears as humans. Brett said: “Dark mother is a term that popped up in various witch folklore so we felt it helped sum up the idea of The Wretch. In essence, numerous witch myths are very much tales of scary mothers or grandmothers. It also helped tie her to the woods and nature in our minds. It implies aspects of a dark mother earth creature idea that we liked.”
The ninety-minute script is executed efficiently as it never drags or overstays its welcome. The pacing is perfect, the characters are likable and the story is original. The cinematography is eerily stunning and the accompanying score is excellent at eliciting suspense. Everything about The Wretched works together wonderfully to deliver a truly chilling blend of fairy tale and horror with a remarkably fresh perspective on witchcraft.