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John’s Horror Corner: The Wretched (2019), a Disturbia-like witch-next-door movie for horror beginners.

November 10, 2022

MY CALL: This movie is perfect for teens and/or folks who prefer a lighter-handed horror movie (like beginners to the genre). There’s just enough gore, likable characters, and an engaging story. But if you live for gore, dread and tense atmosphere, this will surely be too Horror-LITE for your taste.

Visiting his father Liam (Jamison Jones) at his new house, high schooler Ben (John-Paul Howard; Snatchers) and his dad seem to get along well. They’re neighbors are a young couple with two small kids. They’re all good, grounded characters, written endearingly and acted in kind, which is a strong start for any horror film! One day the neighbor Abbie (Zarah Mahler; Nightmare Cinema) wanders by just the wrong tree inhabited by a witch, and from there our story takes root.

Eventually the witch assumes Abbie’s body and whispers enchantments into her husband’s ear to make him forget his own children’s existence and behave as she pleases. Their young son Dillon (Blane Crockarell) watches Abbie shift from his cool, rocker, deer-gutting mom into a janky ghoul with noisy cracking joints and a frightful disposition. Ben sees firsthand how Dillon fears his mother, and Ben can see why! After Dillon disappears, Ben spies on Abbie and her strangely behaving husband.

Like in The Witches (1990), this witch wears the skin of others to disguise her nature, and like The Guardian (1990) she feeds her child victims to a tree. At times, she functions as readily as a demon, possessing someone and then roaring like some infernal dinosaur. We first find her trying to lure a child to her treehole dwelling, then emerging from the guts of a dead deer like Luke Skywalker in a TaunTaun, and skulking around the house like a gargoyle-poltergeist before claiming Abbie’s body for her own.

Not so much my taste, this feels as much a teen movie as a horror movie. Teen angst, teen crushes, teens drinking at parties, mean teens being jerks to nice teens… and if you’re thinking “there are teen characters in loads of horror movies”, that’s not what I mean and that’s not what this feels like. It doesn’t exactly have a “young adult” feel; something more akin to Disturbia (2007) with a Lifetime Channel horror-drama flavor—but obviously less-so during the horror scenes and this Lifetime aura completely dissipates near the end. This definitely makes for strong PG-13 vibes making for a very soft horror for beginners.

But even horror for beginners needs a few deaths and a bit of gore. We enjoy slick wet sloppy gore during the deer cleaning scene, when the witch emerges from the deer carcass, and when the witch crawls out of a host body from a hole in its stomach. The eventual true form of the witch is gnarly enough, and she leaves some gaping bitten-out feeding holes in a couple small children.

Co-writers and directors Brett and Drew Pierce (Deadheads) produced a very well made, written, directed and acted movie. It was just a bit too Horror-LITE for my taste. But with that said, I enjoyed it just fine. And considering how lighter horror is totally not my thing, I’d say that this particular lighter horror movie was actually pretty impressive.

Witch Movie SIDEBAR: Some excellent witch movies that actually feel like witch movies include Warlock (1989), Warlock 2: The Armageddon (1993), The Witch (2016; podcast discussion), Hagazussa (2017) and The Witches of Eastwick (1987). Beautiful Creatures (2013) and The Woods (2006) may appeal to young adult audiences.  But I would sooner direct you to Hocus Pocus (1993), The Witches (1990) and The Craft (1996).

The campy The Kiss (1988), Spellbinder (1988), Necromancer (1988), Necropolis (1987) and Cherry Tree (2015) are entertaining but bad.  And speaking of campy, Superstition (1982) and The Haunting of Morella (1990) are allegedly witch movies but don’t feel like it. But even if you want a bad movie, definitely skip Witchcraft (1989) and all sequels.

The dark noir Lord of Illusions (1995) is intriguingly edgy and, while more a “magic movie” than a “witch movie,” it hits a lot of the same dark arcane notes.  And, of course, The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) were awesomely stylized in their own unique ways despite never actually showing us a witch—at least, not until Blair Witch (2016).  Check out Pumpkinhead (1988) for a great depiction of a witch, though it’s not a “witch movie.” Meanwhile Deadtime Stories (1986) and The Theater Bizarre (2011) feature a pretty cool witch short story, and The Pit and the Pendulum (1991) addresses witch trials.

Witches can come in so many flavors, can’t they?  Lords of Salem (2013), Moloch (2022), Suspiria (1977), Suspiria (2018), Inferno (1980) and Mother of Tears (2007) deal with witches’ spirits in the form of dark ritual and possession. Quite the opposite, Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), The Last Witch Hunter (2015; podcast discussion) and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) offer action and effects-driven popcorn fun—Season of the Witch (2011) attempted this, but failed miserably.  But the witch from The Brothers Grimm (2005) was pretty cool.

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