Few subgenres of horror are as beloved as the monster movie, as they come in all shapes and sizes. In some cases, fans are taken on a relatively expected journey as familiar beasts and tropes are explored, while others use the preconceived limitations of the expected tropes to offer an allegorical adventure featuring expected structures. This forces a number of challenges upon monster movies, as they're tasked with either finding new perspectives on well-worn territory or are forced to introduce all-new mythology to audiences. In the case of The Wretched, audiences are granted a familiar monster-movie tone with enough fresh spins on the subgenre which honors the spirit of its countless predecessors.
In the wake of his parents' separation and after facing some troubles living with his mom, Ben (John-Paul Howard) is sent to spend the summer with his father (Jamison Jones), though he quickly becomes invested in the bizarre behaviors of his neighbors. Unbeknownst to most of the characters in the story, the neighbors inadvertently stumbled across an ancient being in the woods who has the ability to replicate its victims and control others with the slightest whisper in their ear. Ben finds himself tasked with getting to the bottom of the situation, only for his attempts to enlist allies understandably thinking he's lost touch with reality.
There's a lot to like about The Wretched, from the direction to the writing to the mythology to the performances. Written and directed by brothers Brett and Drew T. Pierce, The Wretched borrows from the best of what '80s cinema had to offer, which isn't limited to the horror world. The first half of the film largely focuses solely on Ben's personal struggles as he is confronted by local bullies, with the only person to come to his defense being outsider Mallory (Piper Curda). The angsty teen also has trouble accepting his father's new girlfriend, as he still hopes that his parents can reconcile, with the blend of coming-of-age drama with the charm of Ben and Mallory's on-screen relationship honoring the spirit of John Hughes films.
Despite the effectiveness of the drama, the directors still manage to subtly craft their own take on folk horror, blending tales of witches with much more horrific influences to create an effective monster. The creature is clearly identified as a witch and only rarely takes an otherworldly form, though its presence dominates any scene in which it appears, with it often intentionally being hidden in the corners of the frame for an overall sense of unease instead of a film full of jump-scares. With this creation being an unfamiliar foe, this does require a fair amount of exposition, though the film manages to give us just the necessary information without inundating us with complex lore.
The concept of someone having to pry into their community when they believe foul play is afoot isn't limited strictly to the horror genre, but the focus on teen-aged characters who are also struggling with real-world problems will deservedly draw comparisons to films like Fright Night or The Goonies, yet without capturing the charm of either.
Herein lies the ultimate disappointment with The Wretched, which is that it borrows liberally from monster movies that came before it yet it doesn't ever find its own voice to make it feel unique. The cinematography and overall tone feel far more contemporary than staples of the monster-movie subgenre, which will surely impress some audiences while potentially disappointing others. Luckily, the film's final act does bring with it some narrative reveals that help elevate the relatively expected conclusion, yet these twists merely allow it to keep its head above water as opposed to helping it become exemplary.
Monster movie fans will surely enjoy The Wretched as it manages to borrow from some of the subgenre's standout films without ever feeling like a straight-up reboot, though some viewers will merely look forward to the film's ending so they can revisit the seminal films that helped make this one possible.
Rating: 3 out of 5
The Wretched is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.