A twist in the Wretched | Daily News
Drew and Brett Pierce:

A twist in the Wretched

The twist in The Wretched, which unfolds in the last third of the story, doesn’t really excite. It’s something of a letdown, though the performances don’t disappoint. The story plays on the werewolf fable: the monster emerges from a buck, not a canine. It tackles that most enigmatic of all horror movie themes, the interplay of memory and forgetting. When we realise, as does the hero, that we were tricked into ignoring a key character throughout the whole story, we’re as shocked as he. But the shock that comes with the realisation does not really last beyond the moment; it’s manufactured shock, and when it’s over, it piques us into clamouring for what it will lead to. The disappointment comes with what it leads to.

The last few scenes contain the excitement which those follow-up sequence, and it contains the promise of a sequel. Yet the whole story contains within itself the promise of something better; that it doesn’t really give us what we want pricks at the balloon.

The Wretched, released in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, is at one level a parable about the innocence of youth and the corruption of the old. We’ve seen this trope before; it’s made its way to so many horror stories I can’t keep a count. Yet what its directors, Drew and Brett Pierce, achieve is more than a recasting of an old theme. The corrupt are the old, yes, and yet that doesn’t make the young any better; if you read between the lines closely, you’ll realise that the “young” are easily co-opted into the world of the corrupt. The real innocents are the really young ones: the younger siblings of the teenagers in the story. What the monster does to them, even I can’t quite tell: what does it want with them?

Disappointment and excitement

To be sure, a question of this sort hardly matters. But the final revelation, the final standoff, makes it eminently crucial. Part of the disappointment, and also the excitement, of the story is that while it reveals the monster early on and shows us what it does the moment it emerges from the flesh, we’re never told anything about its intentions. We know it starts by corrupting the old and co-opting everyone around it, but why? To question the intentions of a monster in a monster movie may, of course, be a bit amiss – does it matter what the witch was doing in Robert Eggers’s beautifully horrifying debut? – but then, unlike Eggers’s film, the directors of The Wretched narrate to us everything from the monster’s perspective. If you’re showing everything from its angle, why not bother showing us what it wants?

Perhaps a sequel is in the air. It should be. Despite its flaws, The Wretched is a work of sublime simplicity. It plays around its themes subtly, without revealing too much. While it engages with a theme countless genre films have engaged with, it inverts the tropes and gives us a delicatessen of terror: instead of dwelling on details, it sweeps past them, hoping we’ll get the hint. When the hero, in the car with his wounded father, realises that the monster isn’t all he should be worried about – when it dawns on him that he’d been tricked even before he came to visit, and stay, with his father – the story takes on a new meaning and direction. That the directors don’t tap into the potential of these revelations doesn’t detract from the fact that they’ve pulled off the most impossible stunt in any horror movie: a twist within a twist. They puncture this with another twist; that they don’t resolve the latter makes us wish for a follow-up. Given its box-office performance, there’s no doubt a follow-up will follow.

Unlike every other newbie horror directors from 2020, the Pierce brothers have evaded the radar. They don’t have a Wikipedia page; their IMDb profile doesn’t tell us much. We know they were initiated into movies through their father, Bart, who worked on the gut-wrenching effects of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies. “Gut-wrenching” is an apt word to use for, and on, the effects in The Wretched as well; the monster’s appearance is so sudden and apparent, it’s genuinely terrifying. We also know they are meticulous to the point of perfectionism; as one of them told an interviewer, storyboarding ideas for The Wretched was a strenuous affair, and at page 30 of their first draft, they got stuck for words and visuals. Storyboarding is, I believe, a long forgotten art in this digital, but if you go through the movie (their second since 2011’s hilarious, but barely noticed, Deadheads), you’ll realise how carefully it has been conceived: the scenes are staged right, the cuts don’t jolt, and the twists aren’t too arbitrary.

Tempting details

Because biographical details are sorely lacking, and because no interview has appeared so far, it’s tempting to read into their films, their techniques, and infer those details. The father emerges in every detail: his association with Sam Raimi, his experiences onboard The Evil Dead, and the trajectory of the horror genre in, and after, his time. Yet until a fuller picture comes out of the fog, until someone sits down and does that interview with them, it would be futile to engage in guesswork.

What drives them? What pushes them? What themes do they want to go for? What techniques do they prefer? These are, to be sure, valid questions. And on the strength of their second feature, it’s safe to say these questions will be answered in the not-so distant future. Until they are, guesswork would remain, at best, patchwork.

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