Now At The Drive-In: The Wretched – The Unlikely #1 Movie In America, Reviewed

Update: Watch our half-hour interview with The Pierce Brothers about The Wretched here.

COVID-19 has made 2020 a pretty terrible year for most things, and movies are certainly no exception. With most upcoming films either pushed back or sent to streaming instead of theaters, with most in-production projects being delayed or shelved for the foreseeable future, and with both chain and indie theaters facing the possibility of bankruptcy, almost all of the movie-related news that we've been getting has been pretty bad. But in the midst of all that, there has been one genuinely awesome, inspiring success story, which has shown us that it is possible for a film to flourish and break new ground even in this strange new world. The Wretched, the new horror film from IFC Midnight, written and directed by The Pierce Brothers, has become the wildly unlikely #1 box-office champion in America for four weekends and counting; an unexpected underdog story of an indie genre film triumphing when Hollywood is down for the count. 

With multiplexes closed until who knows when, and drive-in theaters clamoring for content after most studio movies have been pulled from the schedule, this horror film shot in and around Traverse City, Michigan has claimed its rightful place as the drive-in movie king, and in topping the American drive-in box-office, it has topped the American theatrical box-office at large. It is only appropriate: drive-ins are the natural habitat for independent horror, and they are where countless genre classics like Dawn of the Dead and The Evil Dead (on which the Pierce Brothers' dad was one of the special effects artists) first rose to fame. And of course, the success is very well-deserved because The Wretched is very good. It is a very creepy occult horror movie, a tense and well-crafted suspense film, and a well-told coming-of-age tale all in one, and Brett and Drew Pierce balance those tones and styles excellently. The film opens at drive-ins in Michigan this weekend, and is already playing at drive-ins in other states, as well as streaming on Amazon Prime. However you choose to see it, this is highly recommended viewing to get away from COVID for a while.

17-year-old Ben (John-Paul Howard) is having a hard time with his parents' divorce, and after getting into some trouble, he goes to spend the summer with his dad in the Northern Michigan lakeside town he moved to after the breakup. But amid the usual summer jobs, parties, and awkward attempts at teenage romance, creepy things are happening, and he starts to suspect that something strange and supernatural is going on, and that his dad's next-door neighbor has been possessed by a demon. A “dark mother” that feeds on children, and then erases the memories of those children from the world to cover its tracks. The premise draws inspiration from Rear Window (only without the element of confinement) in a teen-focused-thriller kind of way that recalls the very good, and quite underrated, Disturbia, with a dash of Fright Night and an occult-horror twist. The execution is equal parts horror and thriller, relying more on well-built suspense and tension than visceral scares, but providing some really good visceral scares too. The opening scene packs a punch, and drops the viewer right in to supernatural horror territory, before dialing things back, using most of the first act to really develop the film's core characters, and then ramping up the suspense and supernatural overtones in a way that makes the horror feel really earned when it is unleashed.

The film imbues Ben's character arc with realistically-told, well-developed coming-of-age subplots about dealing with divorcing parents and spending a summer between childhood and adulthood on a lake up north. Creating such a grounded-in-life reality for its protagonist again serves to better anchor its increasingly creepy and strange horror in the real world, and gives it some nice layers as a film. And for viewers from Michigan who have spent parts of their summers up north, it will ring doubly true; even if you didn't know that the Pierce Brothers are from Michigan, the familiarity with which they write it all is unmistakable. Some viewers may find the similarities to Disturbia a little too familiar, since there is definitely some significant overlap, especially in the first half. But this film is well-written enough, and has enough of its own voice, that it differentiates itself more than enough, especially as the plot tips more towards occult horror. It may do some things in the first half that we've seen before, but that can be forgiven because it does them very well. And the horror elements added to the mix are quite unique.

The filmmakers have created a very memorable supernatural world, developing enough mythology and creepy occult iconography around their child-stealing villain to really set it apart from horror cinema's other demonic possessors. The marketing from IFC Midnight refers to the creature as a witch, but that seems too reductive. The “dark mother,” as the film calls it, feels like some combination of witch, evil fairy, and skin-walker; very much its own beast, with elements of folklore and dark fairytale mixed in with the straightforward horror. They bring it to life with mostly practical effects, which are excellent. The creature itself is very well-designed and creepy, and the filmmakers make it even creepier by hiding it mostly in darkness, showing just enough. The film also has a few moments of fairly outlandish, very well-executed practical gore. The Pierce Brothers' father was one of the special effects artists on the original Evil Dead, and the filmmaker duo certainly make good on that legacy of impressive practical horror effects here. But that said, this movie is ultimately defined not by in-your-face effects work, but by well-crafted suspense and atmosphere; the effects enhance the film and provide strong payoffs, but they are not the reason the movie exists, and it is ultimately a better movie for it.

The Wretched is a very well-shot film which makes excellent use of its Traverse City locations, capturing their picturesque beauty by day, and making the dark woods, empty fields, and far-stretching waters ominous and sinister by night. Brett and Drew Pierce craft the atmosphere and build the tension with a sure hand, showing themselves to be very impressive filmmakers. For plenty of viewers, this will be their first exposure to the brothers from Royal Oak, Michigan (now based in LA), since this is their first really big feature. But some, particularly those from the Detroit-area cult film scene, may know them from their two previous indies. 2002's micro-budget Dead/Undead never actually got home media distribution in America (though it did in Germany, oddly enough), but it got some attention at Detroit screenings, including a positive (if very snarky) review from Bruce Campbell that gave the brothers some cult film cred, which they built on with their second feature. 2011's Deadheads saw them hone their craft, and make a very impressive indie with a larger (though still small) budget. A zombie buddy-road-trip-comedy, Deadheads is a very funny, clever film which deserved a lot more attention than it got, and introduced the Pierce Brothers as very promising filmmakers to look out for. Nine years later, The Wretched has made good on that promise. This film sees them truly come into their own as directors, delivering a mature major-distributor debut that shows what magic the brothers can work with a larger budget. Between how good this film is, and how successful it has been, I think it is safe to say that the Pierce Brothers have arrived as horror auteurs with a name that genre fans will know from now on. It is well-deserved.

The Pierce Brothers have said that with The Wretched, they wanted to make a perfect summer horror movie, and between its setting and its drive-in success, I would certainly say that they succeeded. It may start with some familiar elements, but it blends them in a way that feels very much like its own thing, and features a horror mythology and otherworldly villain that are very unique and memorable. With the movie opening on drive-in screens in its home state this weekend, and available to rent on Prime for those who want to stay home, this is highly recommended viewing for this most unusual summer season.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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