The Wretched is told through two neighboring Michigan homes. In one home is Ben (John-Paul Howard), a 17-year-old staying with his dad (Jamison Jones) while his parents are separated. Ben’s story is more of the generic teenage story, as he works at his father’s boat dock, and starts a flirty friendship with coworker, Mallory (Piper Curda). But in the house next door is a thousand-year-old witch (Zarah Mahler), who steals children and makes their families forget all about the kids she’s taking to the woods. While these two homes and stories consistently intersect, as Ben tries to find out what happened to the boy next door, Dylan (Blane Crockarell), and what’s going on with the witch-haunted mother, The Wretched is two films in one, neither of which belong together.
Both of these stories have a hard time escaping the mediocrity of their genre tropes. Ben’s story is full of mean jocks, girls he ignores for the other girl that pays him some attention, and frustrations with his family. The horror side is centered around a generic, twitchy villain without any known motives or purpose. Either story has its share of loose ends that make no sense in the long run. Ben tells a story about breaking into a house to steal Vicodin, but this interest in prescription drugs serves no purpose. At the neighbor’s house, it’s never clear what the witch is attempting to do by stealing kids. She needs something to make her an enemy and that seems to be the only justification writers/directors Drew T. Pierce and Brett Pierce need.
Yet what makes The Wretched such a missed opportunity is the way these two stories don’t connect on a thematic level in any way. One home has a kid watching his family torn apart, while the other has a witch whose evil plan is literally tearing families apart, but nothing interesting is done to connect these stories in any conceptual way. The film’s third act throws in a pair of twists that try to unite these stories, but they mostly fail. One, which includes Sara (Azie Tesfai), a woman Ben’s father is dating, is a complete waste, while one that attempts to break down Ben’s family even further only slightly works, but makes no sense if one spends too much time thinking about it.
But still, The Wretched does have glimmers of possibility that show what this film could’ve been. At one point, Ben and Mallory engage in a Rear Window-esque exploration of the neighbors that ties these stories together nicely, and the simpler scares scattered throughout the film work better than when the film goes fully into ridiculous makeup and effects. The simple sight of a creepy etched symbol, a pile of sticks in the wrong place, or a glimpse of the witch’s glowing white eyes in the middle of the night show the subtlety that works quite well here.
The brothers Pierce clearly have an eye for imagery that can freak out their audiences, especially true in a flashback opening that sets a tone the rest of the film can’t watch. But their screenplay full of convenient choices that make no narrative sense, and clunky dialogue between obnoxious teenagers drag down what could’ve been a solid homage to the 80s horror of films like Fright Night.
The Wretched has its moments when the potential in this story can be seen, where a better writing team could’ve combined these two stories into a cohesive plot, as the struggles of these two families interweave and play off each other. But The Wretched rarely is able to engage these two stories together in any meaningful, interesting way, instead leaving behind a series of genre cliches that only highlights the weaknesses of the film.