The Wretched (2019)

Director: Brett Pierce, Drew T. Pierce

Writers: Brett Pierce, Drew T. Pierce

Cast: John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Jamison Jones, Zarah Mahler, Azie Tesfai, Blane Cockarell

Producers: Ed Polgardy, Chang Tseng

Music: Devin Burrows

Cinematography: Conor Murphy

Editor: Terry Yates

Cert: 15 (TBC)

Running time: 95mins

Year: 2019

What’s the story: A troubled teen (Howard) living with his dad believes a malevolent tree-demon has invaded his neighbours’ house and stolen their child.

What’s the verdict: The Pierce Brothers debuted in 2011 with zombie comedy Dead Heads. This spiritedly entertaining sophomore movie is polished and energetic enough to suggest film no.3 won’t be so long coming.

A slice of small-town American horror, The Wretched is a smart blend of Stephen King nastiness and Fright Night “boy who cried monster” suspense.

John-Paul Howard is a compelling lead as Ben, a high school kid sent to live with his dad (Jones) after a scrape with the law. But, Ben is not too happy to discover pop is seeing someone new, the soft-spoken Sara (Tesfai). Or that his job at dad’s seafront marina routinely puts him on the wrong end of prep school students’ put-downs and practical jokes.

This all pales beside Ben’s growing belief that a malevolent creature has invaded the house next door. Particularly when the neighbours’ baby goes missing, the parents don’t seem to notice and their other child Dillon (Crockarell) becomes terrified of his odd-acting mum, Abbie (Mahler).

With an ally only in plucky co-worker Mallory (Curda, cheekily charismatic), the disaffected youth must face the demon before other children are snatched.

Evocative opening credits over rain-sodden toys and a jolting prologue give way to a patiently plotted first act, Ben struggling with his parents’ break-up and burning bridges through spite or stupidity.

The Pierce Brothers also know how to place domestic drama alongside escalating dread. A hole in a tree trunk beckoning Dillon is an effective IT homage, while good use is made of a baby-monitor in a disquieting home invasion scene.

When the battle of wits with the titular meanie erupts, the plot shifts into high gear, powered by beat-the-clock tension and well-crafted surprises.

The tree-dwelling monster is a stiff-limbed, joint-cracking baddie borne of J-horror. But, nice to see the Pierces bringing their monster to life through make-up and real acting rather than mid-range CGI.  Body-ripping special effects again seem to be largely executed on-set and should send horror fans home smiling.

The breathless second-half papers over plot holes until long after the closing credits have rolled, save for why Ben doesn’t get the cops involved way earlier. A killer third act story shift is a clever stroke that intriguingly colours much of what has occurred before and demands a return viewing.

This, alongside the personable characters, believable relationships and a genuine peril that leaves major characters in the ground come the final fade-out, makes The Wretched a horror flick to champion.

Rob Daniel
Twitter: rob_a_Daniel
iTunes Podcast: The Electric Shadows Podcast

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