The Wretched

The Wretched is easily one of the horror highlights of the year. Certain elements of the story are Hitchcockian, others have a Sam Raimi-esque feel. At times, there's a touch of '80s Spielberg in how the film shows young people dealing with an extraordinary circumstance. Although the influences are obvious, directors Bret and Drew Pierce aren't just engaging in mimicry. They have a firm grasp on the story they want to tell and combine their inspirations to give it a vibe all its own.

John-Paul Howard plays Ben, a teenage boy sent to live with his father after getting in some trouble. He's given a job at the local marina, where he befriends Mallory (Piper Curda). Ben confides in her that he suspects something strange is going on at the house next door, where a couple – Abbie (Zarah Mahler) and Ty (Kevin Bigley) – may be mistreating their young son Dillon (Blane Crockarell). Not in the way you'd expect, though. Ty, for example, seems at one point to have forgotten that he even has a son.

There's much more to The Wretched than that. A spooky old tree and a legend about a witch also factor in prominently, as does the new girlfriend of Ben's father. I won't get into how all these things tie together, because so much of the movie's fun comes from discovering the connections. The plot throws a lot of disparate stuff at you, then begins revealing how it links up. By the end, the associations become clear, leading to a satisfying finale that delivers a genuine shock.

The horror comes in a couple forms. Scenes of Ben observing the neighbors and sneaking around their property are reminiscent of a picture along the lines of Rear Window. Like Ben, we're anxious about what he might find, and there's tantalizing mystery in the fact that situations don't initially add up. Whenever The Wretched ventures into the woods, an Evil Dead-ish layer is added. That witch provides a couple of prime jump scares, especially once we learn what she's really up to.

Good performances from the young leads prove invaluable. Howard smartly avoids the “troubled teen” cliches, suggesting instead that Ben is fundamentally a good, caring kid who's reacting behaviorally to some difficulties in his life. The manner in which he tries to protect Dillon is touching, and it offsets the times when his anger comes out in a misdirected fashion. Curda, meanwhile, takes what could have been a stock character – the sassy best friend – and invests her with an abundance of personality. She's terrific. Both actors ground the story, so that the devious plan of the witch comes to have real stakes.

The Pierces, working with cinematographer Conor Murphy, give The Wretched a visual style that effectively contrasts the sunniness of life at the marina with the ominous nature of the woods. It taps into an always-effective horror idea – that evil can lurk around the edges of normal life. From start to finish, the movie holds you in its spell, continually ramping up the suspense and then delivering a knock-you-for-a-loop finale.

The Wretched is a fresh, appealing indie fright flick that marks the Pierce siblings as filmmakers with a bright future.

out of four

The Wretched is unrated, but contains adult language and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.