Like so many middling horror films, The Wretched gets an A for effort. The film’s creature design is incredible, and the weighty old school score is worthy of a more impressive film, but ultimately the whole assembly is a bit of a belly flop.
The film starts with a throwback to 35 years ago in a lakeside town. We see early on that there is something darn creepy in the basement of a house that is determined to get the newly designated babysitter, but that is about all we see. This amuse bouche is just attempting to ratchet up the tension early on, and it certainly got my interest. I mean, what could possibly be down there?
Fast forward to present day. Ben (John-Paul Howard) is spending the summer with his dad (Jamison Jones) soon after his parents’ separation. His dad, the local marina chief, quickly puts him to work running a tight ship (pun intended) and keeping order on the lake. Even with working all the time, the two seem happy enough to reconnect and sweat together for a couple months. That is, until the next door neighbors start acting odd.
The young couple, with a baby son, are already a little non-traditional. Mom and Dad (Zarah Mahler and Kevin Bigley) are tattooed, rock and roll types. Rather than going out of its way to show these two as just another version of acceptable modern parents, The Wretched uses their alternative leanings as a launching point to contrast their style before and after an incident. When mom brings home a dead deer in her truck to clean and eat, to her husband’s chagrin, unusual things start happening. The first major signal that not everything is well is the long-fingered monster who climbs out of the carcass late one night. Her appearance leads to the mom not acting, nor dressing, like herself ever again.
While I appreciate what The Wretched is trying to do here by showing us her changes with wardrobe, rather than telling is precisely what has happened, the whole transition reaks of the overall lack of subtlety throughout the film. The plot points are called attention to multiple times, while (metaphorically) jabbing the audience aggressively in the ribs rather than letting us discover these adjustments or get to know the characters on our own. There is a place for such filmmaking, but when attempting to create tension or unleash a monster on a small town a little cinematic cunning can go much further than overt finger pointing.
That monster, on the other hand, is revealed slowly and is a brilliant exploration in creature design. Madelynn Stuenkel is credited as “The Wretched,” however within the text of the film she is called the “Dark Mother.” There is a certain degree of mythology building around her which would have been nice to hear more about. I realize I just criticized The Wretched for explaining too much and now I wish it would explain more, but the reason behind that is the fact that the Dark Mother is the best thing about The Wretched. Stuenkel’s performance is both organic and otherworldly and the practical makeup aiding in her transformation is as beautiful as it is unsettling.
Also, the heart of the fear that the Dark Mother brings to The Wretched is the fear of forgetting. Allegedly the Dark Mother feasts on the forgotten, and helps those around them fully forget. This threat of not just death, but assimilation and being forgotten by loved ones is such a basic fear. Imagining your loved ones not missing you one bit if you go missing might be the only thing worse than imagining their pain of losing you. Granted, The Wretched is not especially consistent in applying this rule, but the nugget of a truly good idea is in there somewhere.
It is the accumulation of these good bits which ultimately make The Wretched a frustrating film to watch. It has everything going for it: the score, the creature, the mythology, and the basic human fear of being forgotten. But when thrown together with disregard to its own rules and with some obvious choices in characterization and plot, the overall effect is a bland exercise in unfulfilled potential.