The Pierce Brothers’ The Wretched opens with a 1980s-set prologue that mimics the structure of a period-accurate slasher movie: a teenage babysitter, listening to music on her chunky headphones, arrives at a remote house, makes a reassuring phone call to her mom, and then walks right into a creepy basement to get murdered. The movie then cuts to the present day, and the tone shifts to a different kind of throwback, with the idyllic small-town feel of vintage Steven Spielberg.
The Pierces (Brett and Drew) aren’t slavishly imitating Spielberg like J.J. Abrams in Super 8, but they do bring a nostalgic vibe to their story, even in the contemporary setting. Main character Ben (John-Paul Howard) is a troubled teen who’s moved to a seaside tourist town for the summer to live with his father Liam (Jamison Jones) and get his life back on track. Sporting a cast on his arm that serves as a constant reminder of his dark past, Ben takes a job working for his father at the local marina, where he has a meet-cute with quirky co-worker Mallory (Piper Curda) and clashes with the entitled rich kids in town to party on their parents’ boats.
Ben also takes an inordinate interest in his neighbors, a couple with a young son and a new baby. At first the teen spies on Abbie (Zara Mahler) and Ty (Kevin Bigley) while they’re getting busy in the bedroom, but his horny voyeurism soon turns to alarm. Ben is convinced that Abbie has been replaced by some sort of malevolent entity, and he’s entirely right: after a trip to the woods with her son Dillon (Blane Crockarell), Abbie brought back the same kind of creature that wanted to eat the babysitter in the prologue, and it has set its sights on her family (and Ben’s).
The Pierces keep most of the mythology around this creature fairly vague (Ben gets his info from a website called Witchypedia), and many of the plot elements don’t hold up to scrutiny, especially following the big third-act twist. The most intriguing idea is the creature’s ability to make people literally forget about their own children and siblings, but that goes underexplored in favor of basic horror-movie scare tactics. When it appears onscreen, the creature is an impressively crafted practical effect, although its presence is more aural than visual, and the sound effect that accompanies it is the kind of chittering, crackling noise that’s become overused in horror movies over the past decade.
The slow build-up to the full-on horror allows for plenty of character development, but Ben just isn’t that interesting. His teen angst is vaguely defined (a single reference to pills stands in for the problems that drove him to leave home), and Howard’s performance involves a lot of sullen pouting. Ben and Mallory have a sweet dynamic – and Curda’s performance is livelier – but it results in little more than a peck on the cheek. Likewise, the townies-versus-tourists angle makes no substantial impact on the plot, and the bullies just disappear from the story once they’ve taken up enough time to get to the climax. Ben’s experiences give him the inner strength he needs to defeat the lurking evil, although his personality remains bland from beginning to end.
Writer Scott Snyder and artist Jock explored much of these same bits of old-world mythology in their far superior 2014 Image Comics series Wytches, which balanced the visceral horror with genuine emotional catharsis (and has been optioned for a film adaptation). Here, even the attempt at a shocking reveal carries little weight, and the same goes for the requisite stinger at the end. The Pierces, who previously wrote and directed 2011 zombie comedy Deadheads, have a slick, polished style and an eye for striking gore effects, but The Wretched is more successful as a calling card for a mainstream horror directing assignment than as an original creation.