2020 | Unrated (PG-13 equivalent) | starring John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda | directed by Brett Pierce & Drew T. Pierce | 1 hr 35 mins |

The Wretched is a deeply, deeply flawed movie that I was still quite entertained by. Even when it wasn’t working, where a sequence would drag on way longer than it should or a huge plot point would drop that didn’t make a lot of sense, the movie is still such an odd blend of tones and styles that it was an interesting attempt, if not entirely successful. It’s one of the more entertaining horror movies I’ve seen this spooky season – it’s just not that great a horror movie.

The film’s prelude, the usual first kill in a dark empty house, along with the film’s studio – reliable indie horrormaker IFC Films – and promo material of a half naked girl with a cow skull mask indicates the usual direct-to-video low budget horror – either IFC’s brand of atmospheric arthouse or jump-scare trash. Instead, after a glossy opening title sequence, we smash cut into the life of Ben (John-Paul Howard), being dropped off at his dad’s house for the summer. His parents are getting divorced, his dad (Jamison Jones) has a new girlfriend (Azei Tesfai) and he has to get a job at the local dock where his dad works with young Mallory (Piper Curda). The movie commits to providing a depth to all of these characters to a degree almost jarring for a movie like this. Instead of slimming down to the essentials and getting to the hauntings Wretched takes it’s time to show Ben feeling through his new life and his interactions in this new town.

Just as abruptly we’re introduced to his next door neighbors where mom teaches her young son where their food comes from by slaughtering a cow for him – and inside it an evil. Slowly but surely Wretched introduces the supernatural elements though the movie rarely if ever deploys darkness or a horror atmosphere to try to get the spine shivering. It plays out often during the day, like a supernatural version of Disturbia. Sometimes it seems like directors Ben and Drew Pierce want to make a ghastly possession movie, sometimes they swerve into an Amblin kids-on-bikes adventure – without, it should be said with much appreciation, the 80s nostalgia Speilberg homaing. I prefer this to time-burning studio films where half the running time is filled with characters walking down dark halls getting scared by the cat.

In addition to tonal issues, the pace is also an oddity. Quicker than an indie horror but slower than a studio horror film, there are several times when the movie sits on long set pieces that cut back and forth between Ben, Mallory and the neighbors but without the urgency or payoff that such a back and forth usually lends itself to. Ben goes to a party with friends that goes on for several scenes where we see Mallory’s reaction and his father fretting at home and the neighbors slow possession over the course of the same night. It’s a sign the movie is a bit too cluttered and doesn’t know how to juggle it all.

I’m not sure how intentional all of this is, how much the Pierce’s are deliberately subverting the pace and tone of most studio movies or if they are trying to make their own studio movie and accidently making something that sits on top of it like a square peg on a round hole.  It’s also worth noting that the acting is terrible. I don’t normally like to get into this but Howard broods his way through each unconvincing line recitation and Jamison Jones is no better as the quick-to-anger dad.

The movie arranges a deep bench of characters and manages a tight structure of set ups and payoffs. It does a lot right. It does enough to keep it entertaining and engaging. It botches the horror notes often though. It doesn’t fully commit to it’s Disturbia “but what if a witch where next door” premise and when the third act finally turns over to the final supernatural battle it’s showing off it’s weakest material. The movie is very good at set-up and not so much with payoff.

And just to top off the weirdness, Wretched drops in a reality-redefining twist that is kind of nifty but I’m not sure if it holds any water at all and am even less sure how it relates to anything that went on in either the family drama or horror storyline. It’s just a witch’s trick. A lot of the plot points don’t make a lot of sense. More strange than entirely unsuccessful, The Wretched doesn’t hit all the goals it is trying to, but it’s better than a lot of the cynical, cheap slap-dash studio horror releases. Unlike a lot of those movies, The Wretched might have actually been a lot of fun, not on streaming, but in a theater on a Friday night full of teenagers. It’s fun, despite and sometimes because of it’s flaws.