Brothers Drew and Brett Pierce — co-directors and co-writers — have put together dark little modern fairy tale with “ The Wretched,” their second film together. It has an awfully good twist at the end, but that's barely worth the first-half slog.
It's the story of a 17-year-old who one summer lands a job at his dad's marina (bummer, man) and then finds himself the only thing standing up to a skin-walking, flesh-eating witch’s reign of terror (double bummer, man.)
“The Wretched” suffers from a title problem — who exactly are the wretched here? — and a pair of timing ones: It opens when deathly eerie is baked into a simple trip to the grocery store. And it portrays almost every adult woman as a witchy hag, not a great coincidence very close to Mother’s Day.
It's packed with sly nods to previous films, especially to ones by Steven Spielberg — electronic toys running amok from “Close Third Encounters of the Third Kind” and a stalking creature that creates terror at an orderly marina (“Jaws”). Heck, it's hard not to think of “E.T.” when our hero gets onto a bicycle. There’s even a bit of “Aliens” in the way the creature erupts from the chest of its human hosts.
But the first half is tedious as it establishes the players, all stock characters from other summer romance movies — there are rich bullies, the cute girlfriends of the rich bullies, an alternative cool girl and a goofy dad. You know the drill: skinny dipping and drinking games.
John-Paul Howard is our teen hero here and watching him try to convince people that their town is being stalked by a vengeful creature that lives under a tree is a delight. “Look in the cellar, dad!” he screams. (Don't look in the cellar, dad!)
Howard's gutsy teen starts to see weird things happening with the family next door. The mom (a creepy Zarah Mahler) returns with a deer carcass she has hit with her car and butchers it in the driveway.
Mom soon starts cracking the bones in her body loudly and unnaturally — and wearing flowing dresses, sure signs she's been replaced by something gross inside. But at least she still showers regularly and properly stores her garbage. It turns out witches have some good hygiene while they wait to kill us.
Our hero stakes out this odd family from his roof with binoculars, like an homage to “Rear Window.” His cool friend — an excellent Piper Curda — tells him “You’re acting Nutter Butters.” The malevolent witch seems to move from female host to female host, brainwashing men along the way, feasting on children and scratching the eyes out of family photographs. Hey, happy Mom's Day!
The editing is more than a little rough and the plot gets a little stretched, but just as things start to get seriously hairy, the Pierce brothers suddenly have something really interesting to say about erasure and how families can abandon their histories. It's a development worthy of M. Night Shyamalan, but they've run out of runway and there's only enough room left to battle the witch.
The filmmaking brothers have some nice touches — frightening baby video cams and quickly dying flowers — that indicate a bright future ahead. And they prove they are capable of more than just a sizzle reel of other film highlights. Their future is not at all wretched.
“The Wretched,” an IFC Midnight release, is not rated but has creepy horror, disturbing images, cannibalism, violence, including impalings. Running time: 95 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits