‘The Wretched’ review: existential horror meets ‘Rear Window’ in this Hitchcockian woodland psychoterror

Fans of 'Hereditary' will glug this down like a witch drinking the blood of her victims

Horror films tend to come in epochs – a game-changing film emerges, then the industry motivates to serve horror fans with more of what they liked. Scream spawned a late-’90s revival of the slasher, but with a post-modern, ironic slant. The Blair Witch Project gave way to all manner of Handycam horrors soon after. Saw begat the early noughties glut of so-called torture porn movies.

The latest film to inspire anything close to a movement is Ari Aster’s 2018 cerebro-horror Hereditary which, alongside forebears like The Witch, has birthed a subgenre of clever, arty, often oddly-paced horrors concerned with hexes, cults, satanic symbolism and all that good stuff.

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The Wretched is one of this new breed of superior horrors, but we’re definitely onto the second press of the oil. If Hereditary were Blair Witch, this would be Paranormal Activity – similar idea, very well executed, but lacking the finesse and power to shock of the pioneering example.

It’s also a shift for directing brothers Brett and Drew Pierce, whose first film, 2011’s Deadheads, was a knockabout zombie road movie, and who here show their film school chops by weaving in references to a totem of thriller cinema – Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Even if you haven’t seen the latter, you’ll be familiar with the trope from about a bazillion other films (and, of course, The Simpsons episode ‘Bart Of Darkness’). It goes like this: a young person – usually a teenage boy, and in this case Ben (John-Paul Howard), a good kid at heart, but a magnet for trouble – snoops on his neighbours – in this case a family on vacation next to Ben’s dad’s house, where he’s staying while his parents work out a divorce – and decides they’re up to no good – usually murder, in this case unwilling chauffeurs to a malevolent tree witch. Of course, nobody believes the wild fantasies of the kid doing the snooping until they manage to convince an accomplice – in this case Liam’s colleague Mallory (the excellent Piper Curda).

The Wretched
‘The Wretched’ is streaming later this month. Credit: Vertigo

In The Wretched, the adults have a good excuse for not believing – having hitchhiked a ride from the woods, the film’s supernatural menace appears not just to be causing people to disappear, but to be removing any memory of their having ever lived, too. As a central conceit, this is the movie’s great strength, because it is pure existential dread. If you die and no one remembers you were ever even there, were you really alive? Tweet your thoughts.

The aptly wretched title (seriously, why The Wretched? Because Tree Witch sounds too ridiculous?) is dumber than the film itself; actually, the Pierce brothers show restraint in presenting the film’s formidable evil, largely steer clear of horror movie clichés and understand that – as in A Quiet Place – sound is to scares what smell is to taste, and much of the audience flesh creeping comes thanks to the creaking contortions of the evil forest entity. It all amounts to a home-viewing experience (the movie is out May 8 via video on-demand) that – unlike sundry characters – is not easily forgotten.

Details

  • Director: Brett Pierce, Drew T. Pierce
  • Starring: John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Jamison Jones
  • Release date: May 8 (VOD)
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