What do James Cameron's $200-million disaster spectacle Titanic and $237-million sci-fi epic Avatar have in common with a recent $66000 indie horror film called The Wretched? All three films " and they are the only three " to have topped the North American box office for six consecutive weeks.
While Cameron's blockbusters earned around 11 times its production budget, the Pierce Brothers' Michigan-made film earned over 45 times. If you measure profit in terms of budget:box office gross ratio, The Wretched has to be one of the most profitable investments in recent times. At least, for an indie distributor like IFC. Of course, that is not the whole story. The box-office success of The Wretched can be traced to the special circumstances of its release: in a summer without A Quiet Place: Part II, Mulan, No Time to Die, Black Widow, and F9, IFC employed an unconventional distribution strategy of screening the movie at drive-ins, which have been the only cinemas that have been running at full capacity in the US since the coronavirus crisis began.
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Now to the more important question: (like Forrest MacNeil would ask) is it any good? Yes and no. Because The Wretched is an occult horror movie possessed by the spirit of teen seaside summers past. Hidden in their troubled co-existence is a potentially much better but eventually unrealised film.
The Pierce Brothers give us two different perspectives on an idyllic coastal community " shifting between the sun-drenched, laidback atmosphere by day, and the malevolent forces that come out of hiding from the murk by night.
The juicy horror that gives the film its title is mostly relegated to the background in the first half. Seventeen-year-old Ben (John-Paul Howard) is not having the best summer. His parents have just separated, and he has broken his arm after trying to break in and out of a neighbour's house to steal some Vicodin. So he is shipped off to Porter Bay to spend the summer working with his dad at the marina. He is a typically testy and entitled millennial: he groans over his dad's old TV not being HDMI-compatible, and ditches dinner plans with dad and his new girlfriend. Things do improve when he meets Mallory (Piper Curda), a looming love interest " and before long, he is playing drinking games at parties, skinny-dipping with the town hottie, and getting into confrontations with bullies. It is a regular "Wet Hot American Summer".
Piper Curda as Mallory and John-Paul Howard as Ben in a still from The Wretched
Concurrently, we follow Ben's next-door neighbour Abbie (Zarah Mahler) and her family: husband Ty, son Dillon, and baby Sam. One day, when Abbie brings home a deer after a hunting trip with her son, she ends up unearthing an ancient evil: a witch who feasts on children and makes their loved ones forget their very existence. The only person not oblivious to this witchery is Ben, who has got a front row seat to his neighbour's bedroom window, and spies on them like his binocular-wielding forefather from Hitchcock's Rear Window.
The Wretched sure boasts some Big Witch energy. Its gruesome cold opening introduces us to a child-eating, shape-shifting witch, but also sets up how she operates. Ben learns all this through a quick search on "Witchipedia," which describes her as "a dark mother, born from root, rock and tree" and how she "feasts upon the forgotten." That's the real horror in the film: being forgotten. The "dark mother" has the ability to completely erase her victims from a person's memories through mere witch-speak. This becomes a challenge for Ben because how do you report a missing or murdered child when their parents do not even remember they existed. Moreover, for Ben, who is still dealing with his parents' separation, this horror takes on an added layer: as he sees his father move on, he fears an infiltration of his family, his own mother being replaced and eventually forgotten.
Body horror becomes an ideal vehicle to explore these fears. Once the witch slips into Abbie's body, the camera frequently focuses on how her bones snap in and out of place. The images and sounds of this graphic deformation make you conscious of the physical vulnerabilities of the bodies we ourselves inhabit. But it is nothing we have not seen in most possession movies. The other horror elements in the film are derivative of classics: "unwitting unleashing of a demonic force in the forest" from The Evil Dead, "my next-door neighbour is a demon in disguise"from Friday Night, and "my neighbours have become pod people" from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The Pierce Brothers also employ an M Night Shyamalan-type twist near the end, forcing the viewer to re-contextualise what they have seen. The reveal personalises the horror, and is sure more satisfying than "the aliens have a water allergy" from Signs but less than "Bruce Willis was a ghost the entire time" from The Sixth Sense.
What The Wretched cannot deliver on is the simple but effective Hitchcockian thrills. In Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock relies on close-ups of a wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart's face to mine suspense as Grace Kelly enters the apartment of a neighbour he believes to be a murderer. You feel the same sense of helpless dread as Stewart when the murderer makes a sudden and unexpected appearance. If Hitchcock dials S for suspense, the Pierce Brothers dial S for serviceable. The success of The Wretched, if anything, proves we will watch most anything to take our minds of the world going to shit, especially when we get two movies for the price of one.
The Wretched is streaming on Amazon Prime Video India.