Equally indebted to Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg and a mishmash of ‘80s horror films only the directors themselves could comprehensively name-check, “The Wretched” is a fresh horror film built out of familiar parts.
Written and directed by Brett Pierce and Drew T. Pierce (brothers who immediately evoke “Stranger Things” masterminds Ross and Matt Duffer with their proficient mix of technical chops and savvy nostalgia), the IFC Midnight release follows troubled teen Ben (John-Paul Howard) who goes to live and work with his father (Jamison Jones) for the summer. Set in a idyllic beach community, the action truly heats up when Ben suspects his neighbor (Zarah Mahler), the unusually punk-rock mother of two young children, is up to something wicked in the nearby woods.
Faster than you can say “witchipedia” (where Ben gets some of his most valuable info), bones are crunched, kids disappear and occult symbolism runs rampant. But Ben also bonds with a sweet co-worker (Piper Curda), who happily plays the Grace Kelly to his Jimmy Stewart.
What the Pierce brothers lack in flavorful storytelling or compelling characters, they almost entirely make up for in good old-fashioned atmosphere and suspense. “The Wretched” rarely surprises, but it’s well-crafted enough to get under your skin anyway, with an able assist from the creepy camerawork of cinematographer Conor Murphy and unsettling score by Devin Burrows.
Above all, it’s a slick calling card for its filmmakers, who will surely use their work here to bag a major studio horror gig in the near future. But they’d be well advised not to settle for the first reboot that comes along, and apply their talent to material that’s actually worthy of their best influences.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Opens May 1, Mission Tiki Drive In, Montclair; also on VOD