THE WRETCHED – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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On the surface, The Wretched is Halloween movie for kids, but laden with age-inappropriate swears and infanticide and shagging to add a little bit of sexy pizzazz. The debut feature from Brett and Drew T. Pierce, it is undeniably polished, slick and an impressive technical calling card for two filmmakers who clearly have a strong future in front of them.

They’ve played it wisely: accessibility the name of the game here, clearly aiming to hit as wide an audience as possible. Thematically, there’s a lot at stake here, hinging as the film does around a monstrous witch who brings child murder and domestic violence into the life of a small town. While on one hand the film flirts quite impressively with how it plays with ideas of visibility, abuse and victimhood through the metaphoric framework that supernatural horror affords, it simultaneously perhaps leans a little too heavily on redundant clichés around witches, where monstrous femininity far too easily becomes synonymous with female sexuality.

Following John-Paul Howard’s teen protagonist Ben, the young man travels to a small tourist town to stay with his divorced father. The film’s story tracks Ben’s discovery that a witch has possessed the woman who lives next door. Only she’s not the only one, and as the stakes rise, Ben finds himself increasingly disbelieved by the very people he needs to help conquer the evil that has overrun the community.

There are both pros and cons to The Wretched. It’s surface suggests little more than a nice fluffy fun horror film, and as such it is the perfect spoonful-of-sugar to help the foul tasting medicine of child abuse go down: on this front, the film admirably urges us to think about the subjectivity of victims themselves in a way that is refreshingly creative and, even more importantly, not preachy or patronising. The downside, however, is that the pesky mechanics of representation have somehow snuck in regardless.

To put it bluntly, women do not come off particularly well in this film. If you’re sexualized, you’re wicked, and this is all framed from the perspective of a middle-class white boy: there’s just no way around this reality. While the story of the mom-turned-witch neighbor in itself is interesting enough, she’s little more than a simplistic plot device whose function is to propel Ben’s story and Ben’s story alone: she’s reduced to the sexy bad girl goth MILF next door cliché. But she’s not the only one, as time and time again, the film depicts women who disrupt normative family life or demonstrate sexual desire as either being or having the potential to be literal devourers of children, destroyers of both innocence and the hegemonic status quo. Rather than being subversive, transgressive figures who activate social change, then, the sexualised-woman-as-witch equation reduces them purely to cartoonish villains, monsters who plague our heroic, misunderstood tortured teen boy who is the only one who knows the truth and is capable of restoring the status quo. The assumption here is that the status quo wasn’t bullshit to begin with.

Make no mistake, The Wretched is a strikingly polished feature debut that’s a thoroughly fun way to kill an hour and a half. A film that succeeds in its exploration of child abuse but is less accomplished in its broader gender politics, The Wretched is clearly driven by a spirit of nostalgia for older horror adventure films, it’s just a shame it let some pretty outdated clichés come along for the ride.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She was an editor at Senses of Cinema from 2015 to 2018, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic for ABC Radio in Australia, She has written for Film International, Diabolique Magazine, Vulture, Overland, The Big Issue and her own website, The Blue Lenses. She has written eight books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema and co-edited collections on Elaine May, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Peter Strickland, and Alice in Wonderland in film. She frequently contributes commentaries, liner notes and video essays to home entertainment releases from companies such as Arrow Video, Kino Lorber, Eureka Entertainment, Second Sight and Severin Films. She is a Research Fellow at RMIT University and an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).