In He Said/She Said, critics Joe and Valeska dissect a film in a back and forth email exchange. Previously, we were confined to close quarters for a battle to the death with Kirill Sokolov’s Why Don’t You Just Die?
This time, we’re spending the summer at the Canadian cottage, though the flowers are decaying and we seem to keep forgetting family members. It’s time to check out the Pierce Brothers predatory witch film, The Wretched.
Synopsis: Following his parents’ separation, rebellious Ben (John-Paul Howard) is sent to live with his father Liam (Jamison Jones) for the summer. Ben’s problems grow increasingly disturbing when he makes a chilling discovery about the family renting the house next door. A malevolent spirit from the woods is preying upon the children and wiping away any trace of their existence. Ben is forced to launch a perilous crusade in order to put an end to the skin-walking witch’s reign of terror.
Ohhh V, I’m curious to see if we’re 3 for 3 in a row. After Extra Ordinary and Why Don’t You Just Die?, I really didn’t want to break our hot streak.
I came away from The Wretched quite pleased. Not only is this the kind of top notch Canadian indie horror that we can be proud of, it’s got some pretty amazing creature and sound design. Not to mention the fact that this film is mean.
Like, child murder in the cold open mean. Ohhh, I love me some child murder in my horror films!
Not unlike our last film, I heard a great deal about The Wretched when it toured the festival circuit last summer/fall. I read good things at Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal and I heard good things at Toronto After Dark here in Toronto. We’ve had good luck at both festivals with homegrown content: the kind that reinforces Canadian films are a little small in scope, but pack a mighty punch when it comes to execution.
The Wretched has a decent cold open that, in hindsight, tells you everything you need to know about the witch’s goals and powers, but doesn’t make a lot of sense at the time. On a first watch, this plays like a fairly standard hook to engage the audience before spending the majority of the first act setting things up. That’s not exactly the case, though: as the credits end, we see the face of our protagonist Ben being plunged into the water as he struggles before jumping back five days. It’s easy to forget about this moment until the narrative catches up to it at the start of the third act and since Ben’s water trauma is unrelated to the cold open, I would argue it’s not that effective.
Thankfully the rest of the film works much better. The first act, in which Ben settles uncomfortably in with his dad, meets potential love interest Mallory (Piper Curda), butts heads with a bunch of privileged assholes and avoids meeting his separated father’s new girlfriend Sara (Azie Tesfai), moves at a brisk clip.
While this is all happening, we’re also following Ben’s neighbours: rocker mom Abbie (Zarah Mahler), laid-back dad Ty (Kevin Bigley) and their adorable son Dillon (Blane Crockarell). Things go south for the family pretty quickly when Abbie brings home a dead buck that is actually housing the witch Dillon glimpsed on their hike and, in no short order, the baby is gone, Ty is a somnambulist, the witch is wearing Abbie’s skin and Dillon is in peril. And Ben has a front row, Rear Window-esque view of the whole show.
What I really liked about these first few acts is how well balanced the two storylines are: we get enough time with Ben, Mallory, Liam and Sara to get sucked into the domestic drama, all while the shit is hitting the fan right next door. It’s inevitable that they’ll collide, but even as people go missing, cops are called in and Ben’s hysteria prompts Liam to assume he’s on drugs, The Wretched somehow always manages to sidestep feeling cliche or overly familiar. This is, in part, because the Pierce brothers aren’t afraid to kill a lot of folks that other films would have saved, so even if the last act, and particularly the film’s resolution, feels a little too pat, the vast majority of the film still worked for me.
V, are you feeling as generous as me? Did the unexpected last act reveal that Ben has secretly had a brother, Nathan (Judah Abner Paul) all along surprise or bother you? And can we talk about the squelching sound design and the bone crunching practical effects?!
I wasn’t going to bring up the final Nathan twist for spoiler reasons but, since you did, yes — I loved that surprise. It’s definitely hinted at in subtle ways throughout the film through throwaway lines and it’s satisfying when it all comes together with that reveal. I do agree, however, that the film’s resolution seems far too pat and neat — what about all of those bodies? What about the fact that Liam and Ben are the last two people known to have been with the deceased? A dead cop and there is zero investigation?? I mean, if it weren’t for the goodwill I hold for this delightfully dark Canadian gem, I’d spend far more of my time complaining about the numerous mind-boggling loose ends that are waved away in its final moments.
But, as it stands, I’m very pro-Wretched.
It’s a delightful mélange of tones and references. There are tiny nods to classic fare such as Rear Window (as you mentioned) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, little touches of Del Toro-style dark fantasy mixed in with the frights (such as that mysterious tree with the deliciously sinister pit at its roots), some truly stomach-turning body horror, a hearty helping of lightly comedic teen romance, and some grounded family melodrama. Handled less competently, this mix may have felt clumsy and disorganized, but it gels together nicely under the watch of the Pierce Brothers.
I enjoyed the performances in the film and was particularly taken by Curda’s turn as Mallory; the character felt fresh, realistic, and relatable, far more so than most comparable love interests. And yes, the sound and monster design are so good! I love how judicious the film is in terms of showing us the witch, particularly in the first half — the short glimpses are just enough to whet the appetite and deepen the dread.
When it comes to film selection for this column, we’re definitely 3 for 3 — 2020 seems to be our year, at least in terms of He Said/She Said. (Everything else in 2020 seems to be a disease-ridden dystopia thus far.)
Joe, I’m glad to hear the pacing worked for you (especially since you spent most of 2019 feeling irked about the pacing in various films!). I’m curious to hear what you thought about the troubled family element — I know you like a good strain of effective melodrama in your story. Did the family dynamics keep you interested? Is Sara the chill stepmother of our dreams? And do you think that the ending signals a reconciliation of the family unit?
I’ll confess that I quite liked the family dynamic, though I don’t know how well it will work for others. I appreciated the time and effort spent on Ben’s domestic drama – not just because it’s required for the latter half of the film when it’s important plot-wise for him to be disbelieved. At the same time, though, I can easily see other, more impatient viewers getting frustrated each time The Wretched turns away from the action next door so that Ben can take a call from his (mostly offscreen) mother or take a drive with Sara.
As for the “new woman,” I am kinda firmly pro-Sara. Ben’s mother seems so overbearing each time she calls (the film doesn’t exactly nail the dynamics that separated Liam from Ben’s mother, so I’ll confess I spent a lot of time early on unsure if we were meant to hate her). Sara, on the other hand, is incredibly sympathetic, down to earth and generous, especially considering her introduction to Ben is being called a bitch. Yikes on that moment!
It probably doesn’t hurt that I quite like Azie Tesfai from her brief turns on Jane the Virgin and Supergirl, but you’re absolutely right, V; Sara is definitely a dream. It’s another pleasant surprise from this film that she’s not a heinous bitch who tolerates Ben because she’s sleeping with Liam (frankly, I’m done with wicked stepmothers). That’s also why it works so well that The Wretched brutally slaughters Sara – because by the time that she’s revealed to be a villain, you don’t want her to come to any harm. The fact that she’s not just killed, but that the witch literally rips its way out of her is just cruel…and I love it.
As for the end…well, like you, it simply doesn’t work for me. Ben seems adamant that his parents won’t reconcile, but everything in the car as his mother helps Liam buckle up suggests the bland restoration of a traditional heteronormative family.
And then there’s the stinger involving Mallory, who you’re right is singlehandedly the best, more refreshing character in the film, but has somehow become the witch’s new host body? Unless I’m reading that wrong, that ending a) doesn’t make sense and b) comes out of nowhere and c) doesn’t satisfy. Considering what’s come before, the post-climax events of the film feel surprisingly uneven, as though the Pierce Brothers gave up on their thesis in favour of a studio-mandated happy ending with everything wrapped up. Colour me sad and just a bit frustrated because it drops The Wretched from a 9 to an 8 for me.
V, how would you rate this Canadian creature feature? Would you have liked to see the assholes get their comeuppance? And would you be open to further adventures of this bone-breaking witch?
You nailed it — that final shot with Mallory is nonsensical. Maybe if she had been in the tree pit and unseen for an instant, it would be believable that a transfer may have taken place. Perhaps, instead of indicating that Mallory is the next host, the final shot instead shows Mallory deep in thought about the trainwreck insanity that is Netflix’s Tiger King. Or maybe she is planning out a lengthy grocery list.
If she is, in fact, the next host, maybe she will be the one to take on the privileged teen assholes — and that can be the plot of a sequel? Given the letdown of the final pieces of this film, I’m not sure how successful another chapter would be, but I’d give it a shot (if only for the body horror and dark imagery)!
I’ll give it an 8 as well, Joe. Canadian-made features always get a slight bonus when it comes to my scoring — I do love a good maple syrup massacre. I’d advise that we both stay out of the woods and away from the neighbours, but it seems that we’ll be homebound for at least the next four weeks anyway. Happy quarantine!
The Wretched is now available on VOD.