As a child, I had always been fascinated by witches. From the excitable Sanderson Sisters to the Wicked Witch of the West, it was hard not to be taken in by the different variations of magical women who occupied our minds once we finished their story. However, there was one particular type of witch that forever lurks in the back of the mind, the one that is evil purely for the sake of evil. And that is the type of witchy creature that lurks within the confines of the Pierce Brothers’ latest project, THE WRETCHED. While the witch will be one to haunt the nightmares of anyone who gets the chance to see her onscreen, the fear she stokes in the audience’s hearts is hindered by a story that is unevenly paced and tries too hard in places it doesn’t need to.
The opening scene sets the tone of the film and makes it clear that the Pierce Brothers mean business. Strewn childhood toys can be seen in the opening, forgotten much like the kids that we will see be forgotten throughout the course of the film. Within the first five minutes, we see the true extent of the horror that the witch will deliver as she munches on a little girl before turning its attention on the teenager that interrupted her. If this particular tone had been an undercurrent throughout the film’s less witch-focused scenes, I think that the delivery of the overall product would have been better. However, this was not the case.
This leads us into our main characters. We meet the typical, angsty teen Ben, who you can immediately peg as the guy that’s going to take down the big ol’ bad witch at some point in the film. He’s caught between his two parents, who are taking turns passing him back and forth while they prepare for the possibility of a divorce. In the meantime, Ben is just trying to settle in a new place with a new job dealing with brand new people. In a series of scenes, we learn that Ben is just your typical good guy who’s just trying to deal with whatever crap life throws at him. Oh, and he’s misunderstood. However, it’s the things he starts noticing next door at his neighbor’s place that start to draw his attention away from assimilation. Something is off about them and, luckily for the audience, this features the re-introduction of the witch.
THE WRETCHED really shines when we see the witch come back into the story and pick off a family one by one. Zarah Mahler, who plays Abbie and the witch later on, really takes on the role with gusto once the witch offs Abbie in order to better move around the town. With a change of tone and depth of her voice as well as her utilization of her body and other movements, she portrays an eeriness that cannot be denied. In fact, I could argue that the Abbie witch may be creepier than when we finally see the witch’s true form. But that might just be me. The biggest thing that helped to assist Mahler and later Azie Tesfai (playing Sara) in capturing the energy of the witch was how the Pierce brothers chose to shoot her. Whether in far away shots or up close and personal, there is something off-kilter and otherworldly that is captured in the process. Throw in some gnarly bone cracks and contortions, and you got yourself a spoopy witch.
The one major complaint that I have is that the story itself went through one final drafting process prior to shooting. It didn’t quite feel like everything was there. The characters, for the most part, felt fairly one dimensional and not because of the acting. The way the scenes were written for the individual characters did little to really expand or add depth to the individual characters as a whole. One way that we could have seen the characters explored more was if the actual runtime had been expanded a bit more. I’ll explain. Halfway through the film, Ben finally puts the pieces together about what is going on with Abbie next door. However, upon figuring this all out, it’s like a rush against time for him to convince those around him that’s something is wrong. This seemed like a forced urgency that ended up weakening the film. If the Pierce brothers had perhaps expanded the cat and mouse game that Ben and the Abbie witch were having with one another, it could have not only created a more believable urgency, but it could have also allowed more of an opportunity to learn more about Ben, his would-be love interest Mallory (Piper Curda), or Ben’s father (Jamison Jones).
Without providing spoilers, there is also a story element that was added specifically as a twist that also ended up proving to cheapen the feeling of the film. When this particular twist is revealed, it feels cheap and unearned. I could see the breadcrumbs that had been interwoven into the story, but the abrupt change that was written into the film didn’t make sense despite the Pierce Brothers revisiting scenes as a way to showcase to the audience how the twist was plausible. However, I’m of the opinion that if a twist is good enough and believable enough, it really doesn’t need to be explained. Unfortunately, this one did need explanation and ended up doing more harm than good for the overall story.
THE WRETCHED, while presenting arguably one of my favorite witch characters in the horror movie genre today, ultimately was just decent. I found myself wanting to spend more time with the witch than deal with any of the other characters. That followed by a story that had so much it wanted to accomplish but seemed to be in a rush to get there, I was left wanting something better than what had been delivered. The film has potential and, should the Pierce Brothers want to explore the witch or other creatures like her in this universe in the future, I’d definitely be keen to see more emphasis on the creature if there isn’t more character development in the protagonists that we are supposed to care about.