‘The Wretched’: how an indie horror movie became the surprise hit of 2020

It’s only taken $2m at the box office, but well-crafted horror 'The Wretched' now sits alongside 'Avatar' and 'Black Panther' in the Hollywood record books. Directing brothers Brett and Drew Pierce explain how their low-budget witch movie has worked strange magic in the COVID era

Wretched is a pretty good word for the year 2020 so far. And aptly enough, it’s also the name of a film that’s become the unlikely Hollywood success story of the decade.

The Wretched, released to streaming services in May, has enjoyed a run of five consecutive weeks at the top of the US box office, placing it in the lofty company of Avatar, Titanic, Black Panther and The Sixth Sense, albeit with total takings of around $2 million compared to, say, Avatar’s $2.9 billion. Where those movies were blockbusters with Titanic-sized budgets, The Wretched is a low-cost, little-hyped indie horror movie about a coastal town terrorised by a witch who lives in a tree and has the power to erase all memory of a person’s existence. No, honestly, it is good.

Advertisement

At a time when studios are torching their release schedules until cinemas are back at full capacity, The Wretched arrived tailor-made for the only screens that already pass social distancing muster – video on demand and drive-in movie theatres, of which there are just over 300 remaining in the USA. And in a weak field, The Wretched has bewitched moviegoers looking for a little escapism.

The underdog success story – and lack of other things for critics to write about – have in turn created a self-perpetuating cycle, where the film keeps getting bigger. A Forbes headline recently declared it has “forever redefined how we measure box office success”. Brett Pierce, who directed the movie alongside his younger brother Drew, jokes that he’s going to get that quote carved on his tombstone – even if the film’s success has left him feeling like a Coronavirus grifter.

The Wretched
Brothers Drew and Brett Pierce co-directed ‘The Wretched’. Credit: Alamy

“It’s so weird,” he says, on an afternoon Zoom call with Drew from LA. “We’re so excited that so many people are seeing our movie but you also have this inherent guilt of kind of like… well, is this just happening because the world’s ending!? A friend of mine literally told me, like, ‘You know, you only got this because of COVID, right?’ And I’m like, ‘It was a little bit the movie too…’”

Timing has, undoubtedly, helped, but that’s not to undermine the film’s undeniable charm, strong reviews and great word-of-mouth. The Wretched has the feeling of a horror film made by people who truly love the genre, which is often what marks out a surprise hit like It Follows from a cash-in stinker like The Curse Of La Llorona. It’s perfect fodder for a drive-in movie theatre, where date night B-movie horrors traditionally play well.

The Wretched
‘The Wretched’ sees a defiant teen facing off against a 1000-year-old witch. Credit: Vertigo

Advertisement

“You’re not watching it in the absolute pristine, perfect situation,” says Drew. “You’re under the stars, you’re listening through your car stereo, so you kind of need things to be big and loud and fun – and that’s horror movies and sci-fi.”

Though the COVID crisis has booted some plans into action, Britain never really got on board with the drive-in craze like the USA did in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s – possibly because sitting in a drafty Morris Minor in a soggy field isn’t quite as romantic as scooching along the bench seat of a car the size of a small yacht. Nevertheless, the trickle down of drive-in success stories created some beloved hits of the VHS era. “Drive-ins helped movies that couldn’t get wide releases to be seen, like The Evil Dead back in the day, because it was unrated and drive-ins were the only theatres that would take it,” says Drew.

The Evil Dead clearly influenced The Wretched’s woodland setting and malevolent villain, and with good reason – the Pierce brothers’ father worked on the 1981 cult classic’s gory visual effects. Some scenes – including the infamous, gross-out meltdown sequence – were filmed in the family basement. Brett snuck downstairs as a toddler and unwittingly subjected himself to a run-through of that scene being projected onto a sheet. “They didn’t know I was there, and I was freaked – I was terrified!” he says. “So I didn’t watch Evil Dead until I was, like, 15, because I had in my head it was the worst thing I’d ever seen. I had an irrational fear of horror movies. But then I was kind of addicted to them for the same reason, because I’m so fascinated by what scared me as a kid.”

Another childhood terror directly influenced the story of The Wretched – a “gnarly old tree” in the brothers’ Detroit backyard that inspired the witch’s woodland lair. “Lightning had struck and kind of half-killed the tree,” says Drew. “It had a big old hole in it and we used to dare each other to reach inside.”

The Wretched
Blane Crockarell as Dillon. Credit: Vertigo Releasing

Their dad’s work transferring films to VHS for release and their own pocket-money jobs at video stores gave the Pierce brothers an impeccable schooling in the art of home video, and their deep-nerd knowledge is evident in The Wretched’s nods to both rental favourites like Fright Night and classics like Hitchcock’s Rear Window. It was the indie boom of the 1990s, led by self-made directors like Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed And Confused) and Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats), that really showed the brothers a path to success they felt they could emulate, though Drew says it’s “a lot harder for a very small movie to spark and blow up the way things used to in the ‘90s” – and the eight year gap between their directing debut Deadheads and follow-up movie The Wretched speaks to that difficulty.

Realistically, the brothers expected The Wretched to open in 10 or 15 cinemas in the US, disappear after a week, and hope that the good reviews and festival buzz would make it a streaming hit. What’s happened instead will, undoubtedly, open doors for the pair in mainstream cinema – and create demand for a sequel to The Wretched. Handily, the movie’s ending does leave that option on the table.

The Wretched
Ben (John-Paul Howard) and Mallory (Piper Curda). Credit: Vertigo Releasing

“It wasn’t written to be, like, ‘Hey, we want there to be sequels’, more like we wanted this ironic ending,” says Brett. “But we honestly had a bunch of ideas that didn’t make it into this one that were cut because they didn’t fit the story or they were just beyond our means to pull off, so we’re in discussions and we’re getting excited about making another one. We really like the world in our story and we like the idea of expanding on that and trying new things. We like sequels that kind of become something else, not just, like, another family and the witch comes to their house.”

The pair say they have numerous irons in the fire right now – including another horror movie idea, which works through the Ws from witch to werewolf. “We feel like we have like a way into the werewolf movie genre that nobody’s ever seen before,” says Drew. “Like a really unique take on it, because werewolf movies tend to have the same structure and mood, and we have a way to blend some other genres into the werewolf genre.”

The Wretched
The Pierce Brothers investigate their set. Credit: Alamy

“Pretty much like our version of Predator with a werewolf,” says Brett.

Right now, most productions are on hold due to the COVID restrictions, and Drew can’t see a way of making film sets safe. “Film crews are so sloppy – like, everybody’s on top of each other. They’re like orgies, basically,” he says.

So, for now, there’s little left to do but bask in the glory of having the surprise box office smash of 2020. Which leads me to wonder: given it matched the Number One run of Titanic, Black Panther, Avatar and The Sixth Sense, where would they place The Wretched among those movies?

“I haven’t heard of any of them,” says Drew. Perhaps he hung around that memory-stealing witch too long…

The Wretched is available On Demand now

Advertisement
Advertisement