There seems to have been a mini resurgence in ‘creatures in the woods’ films over the last five years. The Witch, The Ritual and even low budget festival hit The Head Hunter tackle the mysticism of creatures hidden behind the treeline.
A parasitic tree hag is the ghoulie at the centre of The Pierce Brothers’ The Wretched (previously titled as the much more straight-forward Hag). We’re introduced to her in a flashback scene set 35 years prior to the events of the film, where an unknowing babysitter walks into a house to discover the mother chomping down on her small children. Taking the form of a host body, the hag has gone hundreds of years undetected in her search for infant flesh.
When teenager Ben (John-Paul Howard) is sent to live with his now-single father in a tourist town, the last thing he probably expected to be doing was staking out the neighbours when the couple residing in one of the holiday homes begins to act suspicious. The film finds its setting in a bright and placid harbour town, where dad Liam (Jamison Jones) works for a boating company that Ben is now forced to work at. The town is neither downright creepy or peacefully creepy where the stillness and happiness undercut a sense of unease— it is simply fine, just missing that special something that you find in all of the best Stephen King “kid discovers something bad” stories.
On his way to work, Ben repeatedly sees his young neighbour Dillon (Blane Crockarell) playing in the garden and around the foundations of his holiday home. One day Dillon isn’t there; plants are dying around his house and his parents are acting strange. Armed with his binoculars, Ben keeps tabs on Dillon’s family and notices strange behaviour and a pagan-esque symbol carved into their porch. When the couple are confronted, they deny ever having a child.
The Pierce brothers do little to raise intrigue in this initial exploration stage of the film, titbit clues are uninspiring and Ben’s search on the diabolically crafted Windows 95 ‘Witchipedia’ is a nail in the coffin for lore exploration. It’s a real shame, as the hag is described as the ‘dark mother’, made of rock, root and tree— but her roots don’t seem to extend far enough in the towns history to feel like a particularly ominous presence.
However, the witch’s physical presence is the films standout. In her pure form she’s dark with piercing eyes, a torn zombie-like face and long fingers. Its gorgeous work that deserved to be shown off more. In her host body of neighbour Abbie (Zarah Mahler) her body contorts and shifts in a wonderfully inhuman manner. If anything, Mahler’s physical performance in the film is the true winner.
The is obviously strength in restraint, and never showing too much of your boogeyman in the horror genre usually leads to a more frightening film, but The Wretched just feels a tad under-cooked with its enthusiasm for its creature and the coherence of its story. Running along multiple tangents, the film lacks a clear vision for Ben’s character and his journey. There’s a plot line where a completely undiscussed—and from what you see, out of character— prior event involving Ben and prescription drugs that becomes the reasoning behind other characters’ doubts over Ben’s suspicions. Its an overworked device that distances viewers, leaving them in the fog (it was very recently a huge problem in The Strangers: Prey at Night).
The iconography of witches is something that people have really been flocking to recently in both film and TV, with many of these modern iterations gaining cult followings (the previously mentioned The Witch, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, The Love Witch etc.) and it is a one with a loaded and fascinating mythology behind it. In theory, a new creature-heavy take on this popular horror icon should have been a wild and bold success, but The Wretched buckles under its mediocrity. There is nothing particularly bad or unforgivable in its script, performances or its technical aspects but also nothing to stand it apart from other horrors in a string of years that have enjoyed unprecedented success and critical acclaim.
The Wretched is an easy watch and for the most part well-paced to keep a focused attention, but ultimately the multiple relationship conflicts within Ben’s story are a huge distraction and take out a chunk of time that could have been dedicated to watching that witch eat more children, which is really what we were all there to see.
The Wretched is available on VOD from May 1st
by Chloe Leeson
Chloë (she/her) is the founder of SQ. She works as a teacher in the GLAM sector and freelances as a costume designer and maker living in the North East of England. She thrives watching 90s Harmony Korine Letterman interviews and bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Green Room and Pan’s Labyrinth. Find her on Letterboxd here.