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The Wretched | Review

Something Derivative This Way Comes: The Pierce Bros. More Wicker than Wicked in Witchy Thriller

The Pierce Bros. The WretchedThe dead aren’t so much evil in The Wretched, the highly polished sophomore effort from directing brothers Brett and Drew T. Pierce, as they are covetous of pricey lakeshore property. Or so one could assume for the motivation of the witches lurking in the woods from the duo who last tackled zombies with their 2011 debut Deadheads.

A highly derivative narrative seems even more deadened thanks to their switch to a teenage boy’s perspective, but some impressive visuals are sometimes enough to distract from the predictable proceedings (and comparably, there’s more texture here than the even more obvious Witches in the Woods from Jordan Baker, which arrives on digital and demand only a week prior). Still, one will be hard pressed to remember the fine-tunings of the plot or the serviceable if wan presence of its performers once the credits roll.

With his parents’ separation now official, the rebellious teenager Ben (John-Paul Howard) is sent to work with his father Liam (Jamison Jones) for the summer at the local marina. But his father’s new girlfriend Sara (Azie Tesfai) and the chiding of the local privileged teen population makes adjusting to his new surroundings more difficult. Thankfully, a flirtation with his co-worker Mallory (Piper Curda) proves to be the sounding board Ben needs when he notices strange goings on at the neighbors’ house (Zarah Mahler; Kevin Bigley) as their two small children disappear and no one seems to have a memory of either of them. What’s up with that?

Much of The Wretched seems to be a missed opportunity, given how its scenario and lead teen John-Paul Howard suggest the potential inverse of The Stepford Wives (1975). What’s curious is the significant amount of time spent with Ben and Liam, who are mere archetypes of the ‘father and son at odds over divorce’ ilk and still are lacking character development beyond basic attributes. It would seem some of this screen time would have been better served to explain the origins of these particular witches and their reappearance (the film opens with a scene from thirty-five-years in the past and then fast-forwards to another past timeframe marker “five days ago”).

Instead, this plays like the terrestrial version of the 2004 Julianne Moore thriller The Forgotten, except with even less mystery (William Friedkin’s 1990 obscurity The Guardian also comes to mind). On the other hand, special effects technician Stephen Imhoff and visual effects supervisor John Brennick deserve credit for some magical moments—if only this thin-skinned, not-rated genre effort had also managed to strike some kind of palpable ambience or tone than The Wretched might have stirred the nostalgia of classic YA Disney films like Watcher in the Woods (1980) or Return to Witch Mountain (1978).

★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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