“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Rear Window” might not be the most obvious reference points to exist in harmony, but “The Wretched” finds an amusing way to let them jam together. The sophomore efforts from sibling directors Brett and Drew Pierce (who go by “the Pierce brothers”) is a fun eco-horror ride about a small lakeside community overtaken by root monsters, juggling the inherent silliness of that conceit with a surprising amount of subtlety, providing the rare example of a derivative horror movie that manages to make its borrowed formulas feel worthy of the rehash.
When burly teen Ben (John-Paul Howard) arrives at his dad’s small-town abode while his parents undergo a painful divorce, he settles into the usual beats of a bland summertime excursion. That means helping out at the boat dock owned by his well-intentioned father (Jamison Jones), bonding with the flirtatious local Mallory (Piper Curda), and avoiding the pressure to confront his dysfunctional family problems by chasing the party trail. Spooky trouble starts brewing when an apparent witch emerges from roadkill, overtakes the bodies and memories of the family next door, and Ben grows obsessed with figuring out how to explain these circumstances to his disbelieving father.
As Ben peers through binoculars to the sinister events across the way, “The Wretched” makes no bones about its Hitchcockian influences, but it’s especially amusing to see that old cinematic chestnut cracked open in the context of schlocky B-movie. In the pantheon of environmental thrillers, “The Wretched” doesn’t come anywhere near the complex apocalyptic dread of Larry Fessenden’s “The Last Winter” or “Wendigo” (not to mention “Annihilation”), where the environment comes back to haunt its clueless human inhabitants — but to their credit, the Pierce brothers don’t even try. Instead, as Ben digs deeper into the ominous creature that seems to have her talons in various people around town, the movie unleashes a range of kooky creature effects.
There’s another precedent at play here, but it’s a lesser one. In M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening,” the self-serious tone was undone by every eerie closeup of an expressionless plant, but “The Wretched” goes the opposite route. Bruised flesh intermingled with roots and dirt, crackling joints, and growling utterances emerge from the various bewitched forces that Ben encounters as the situation grows more dire around him, in an impressive array of grotesque assaults, which makes it all the more entertaining when nobody believes his story.
Yet even as it has a grand time with the practical effects, “The Wretched” manages to maintain its serious tone, grounding the story in a dramatic scenario that has more to do with Ben’s angsty relationship to his father than the scenario building up around him. That places it a long way from “Deadheads,” the directors’ prior effort, a hokey zombie movie that had a slippery grasp of tone. “The Wretched” fares much better, at least until Ben turns into an incredulous valiant hero in the final third and the jump scares pile up, as an unmemorable score shrieks and shouts through the messy climactic showdown.
Still, the movie delivers enough escapist thrills to yield an above-average refresh on the chilling prospects of an environment that fights back against its clueless inhabitants, right down to an eerie epilogue that suggests it’s not done yet. As in the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” one person bears witness to a grim threat to all humanity, and sounds like a psychopath as a result.
While “Body Snatchers” ends with a clunky happy ending, however, “The Wretched” knows why that tacked-on finale made no sense, and takes a spookier route. That feels just right, and helps make an uneven enterprise strike the right tone before the final cut to black. “The Wretched” doesn’t reinvent the rules, but it has a timeliness to it that’s hard to shake. There’s not quite enough substance here to launch a franchise, but with a story so attuned to perils of a neglected world, it doesn’t need a sequel when we’re living in it every day.
“The Wretched” is now available on digital platforms, VOD, and select drive-in movie theaters via IFC Midnight.