The Wretched is a 2019 IFC Horror film which can currently be viewed on Netflix. In short, the story follows a teen boy who suspects his neighbor of being a witch. I was pleasantly surprised with this film. The acting was good, the dialogue was realistic, the characters were relatable, the imagery was frightening, and the story was original.
The story begins in the 1980's where we see a young female arrive at a home for a babysitting job. Unable to find the child or family, the babysitter checks the basement where she finds the child's mother eating from the deceased child's body. She tries to run upstairs to escape but the father of the child appears at the top of the stairs, seemingly possessed, and closes the door, locking the babysitter in the basement where she is killed by the mother. A strange symbol is shown carved into the basement door.
Fast forward to present time, a teenage boy named Ben (played by John-Paul Howard) is traveling by bus to spend some time with his father (Jamison Jones) after his parents' have separated. He has a vision of himself drowning, before being snapped out of it by an older woman telling him he is "quite the little artist". Ben looks down at the cast on his broken arm which has very little written on it.
At his fathers, Ben notices a picture of him and his father on the fridge. The photo is folded to hide his mother in the photo. He unfolds the photo and places it back on the fridge where his father will later find it.
Liam and Ben have dinner and their relationship seems very good, although it appears Ben is struggling with the separation of his parents. He has been getting into trouble, and earlier attempted to steal from a store. His father asks him when they will discuss whatever incident took place that ended with Ben's broken arm. Ben tells Liam he doesn't wish to talk about it now. The next morning, Ben goes with his father to work. On the way out, they say hello to the neighbors next door. Liam indicates that he doesn't know them and that there are a lot of vacation homes in the area.
Ben starts his work at a marina, where he encounters a group of similarly aged bullies. He lets them know they cannot bring a grill out on the boat because it's a hazard, to which they make fun of him and bring the grill anyway. He calls them assholes, and another employee tells him to watch his language. The employee introduces herself as Mallory (played by Piper Curda) and the two become friends. Ben then takes a call from his mother, which he abruptly ends after seeing his father hug another woman across the docks.
Meanwhile, neighbors Abbie (played by Zarah Mahler) and her young son Dillon (Blane Crockarell) have gotten lost in the woods. Abbie asks her son not to tell his father they got lost. She walks off to urinate in the woods and Dillon wanders off to take photos. He takes a photo of a symbol carved into a tree, the same symbol that was seen carved into the door in the opening scene. He then begins hearing his mother call him, but he realizes it is coming from a hole in the ground at the foot of a tree stump. When he doesn't come to her calls, the voice becomes angrier, and hands appear from the hole. Abbie startles him from behind, and when he looks back the tree and hole are both gone.
Abbie and Dillon arrive back home, and Abbie's husband Ty (played by Kevin Bigley) asks about the dead deer in the back of her truck. She lets him know that they hit the deer on the way home, and she plans to gut the deer and use the meat as she did with her own father. Ty seems against the idea because it could give Dillon nightmares, but Abbie insists she wants Dillon to know where meat comes from. As they begin to gut the deer, blackish blood and guts fall out of the deer and onto the ground which prompts Abbie to change her mind about gutting the deer. They leave the carcass and go back inside.
Later that night, we see the witch crawl out of the deer carcass where Abbie had made the incision. Ben wakes in the night as he hears noises above him, as if something is running on the roof. He goes outside to inspect, where he ends up looking under the front porch of Abbie and Ty's house where he finds an animal. After finding the animal under the house, he rises to his feet and momentarily sees the witch standing on the railing watching him, but he is quickly blinded by the lights of the house, as Ty turns on the porch lights and asks what he's doing in their yard and telling him to leave. The next morning, Ben sees Dillon playing by the porch where he had seen the animal and he tells Dillon to stay away from there. In the car on the way to work, Ben tells his father he'd like to meet his new girlfriend from the marina. Liam tells Ben her name is Sara (Azie Tesfai) and they plan to have dinner that night.
At the marina, Ben sees Dillon avoiding sailing lessons and tells him that he will give him popsicles and skip the lessons if he lets him know if he sees anything weird around the house. Dillon agrees. Liam lets Ben know to pick up gluten free dinner rolls for dinner with Sara. Mallory invites Ben to a party which he declines due to dinner plans with Liam and Sara. While at the store, Ben receives a call from his mother who lets him know she "misses her boys" and asks what they are doing tonight. Ben gets a change of heart about meeting Liam's new girlfriend and decides to ditch his dad and go to the party with Mallory.
Back at the house, Abbie notices her flowers in the yard are all dying . As she walks back inside to change the baby, more flowers are seen wilting and dying. Later in the night, Dillon wakes from his sleep after hearing frightening noises. He goes into bed with his parents. Abbie then wakes up hearing the noises on the baby monitor. She investigates but finds nothing. After she falls back asleep, we see the dark silhouette of the witch reaching into the baby's crib on the baby monitor. Abbie wakes later, noticing the camera has moved too far to see the baby in the crib. She investigates and finds a bundle of sticks where the baby should be. The witch pulls her by the ankles under the crib.
At the party, Ben drinks too much and ignores his dad's calls. He tells Mallory that he broke into his neighbor's house (back at his mom's house) to steal prescription drugs and when they came home early, he jumped out the second story window breaking his arm. He flirts with Mallory and they almost kiss, but Ben vomits. A girl later brings him some water and tells him to come to the pool with her. Thinking they are alone, he goes. She swims underwater and take his underwear off. She tells him to close her eyes while she also gets undressed, but then she exits the pool taking his clothes and the bullies from the marina appear. They make fun of him and he gets out of the pool and grabs his clothes and leaves. Mallory is upset with him for going in the pool with the other girl.
When Ben arrives back home, he sees Abbie walking into the dark woods in the middle of the night in her pajamas. Liam finds him outside and tells him he has been looking everywhere for him. Ben admits he was a party, but tries to tell his father to look out in the woods at Abbie but Liam ignores him, thinking he is drunk from the party. Liam tells Ben he wants him to apologize to Sara, which Ben replies that he won't "apologize to some bitch you're sleeping with". Sara hears this and leaves.
The next day, Abbie is acting strangely. Ty does not notice as he is in a rush to get to work. He kisses her and sees she is covered in dirt. Ty laughs and tells her she needs shower. After Ty leaves, Dillon notices one of his rabbits is missing. He looks for his mother to let her know and finds her standing in the hallway completely naked and moving her body in unnatural ways. Dillon runs off frightened.
At the marina, Ben dumps trash in the bullies' boat and leaves Malory's favorite starburst candy in her bag as an apology. He asks his father to give him a ride home. Liam tells him he can wait, and Ben asks Sara. She agrees, and on the ride home they make up and she gives him a do over. She tells Ben she can't have dairy but that she is a very good vegan cook. When he gets home, he is alone and hears noise coming from upstairs. When he investigates, he finds Dillon with his pet rabbit hiding in their house. At the front door, Abbie begins to call Dillon's name. Dillon, appearing frightened, tells Ben not to let her in. Ben heads downstairs where Abbie appears to be talking to someone that isn't there. He tells her Dillon isn't there. She tells Ben to send him down, and he again tells her that Dillon is not there. Abbie calls Ben a "very stupid boy" and tries to come into the house. Ben tells her to get off his property, and Ty arrives home, calling out to Abbie. Hearing his father, Dillon comes down and tells his father he wants to go home. Dillon tells his Ty that Abbie is acting weird. Ty tells her she has always been weird and brushes him off.
Ty says goodnight to Dillon and looks into the baby's room. The baby's furniture is gone. Ty looks confused, but does not question where the baby is, as if he does not know he has a baby at all. Mallory calls Ben and accepts his apology, as Ben spies on the neighbors. Ben sees Abbie seducing Ty. We see Abbie's back closeup which appears to show her flesh rotting.
The next morning, Mallory finds Ben asleep at the marina waiting for Dillon to show up for his lessons. Mallory tells him Dillon didn't show up, and he leaves the marina to check on him. Ben visits Ty and asks where Dillon is. Ty tells him he does not know who Dillon is and that he does not have any children. After Ty closes the door, Ben finds the strange symbol of the witch under Ty's doormat.
Ben starts to research the symbol and finds information about the witch, or "the dark mother" who "feasts upon the forgotten". We see images of the witch putting on or taking off people's skin like clothing. Ben and Mallory begin to spy on the neighbors. Ben sees Abbie coming from the basement and throwing bags in the trash. Mallory thinks this is a joke and leaves, sliding a note under Ty and Abbie's door that shows a photo of a witch and a message that says "We know what's in your cellar". Ty finds the note and goes to check the cellar. Abbie interrupts him and whispers something in his ear, causing his ears to bleed and he begins acting strangely, as if possessed.
Later that night, Mallory is leaving for her shift. Abbie is seen in the window of the marina office, but Sara and Mallory do not notice her. As Mallory locks up, we see a photo has been taken from a bulletin board in the marina. Back at home, Ben sneaks next door to look through Abbie's trash. He finds photos and items belonging to the baby and Dillon.
The next day, we see Ty acting robotically as he mows the lawn. Abbie is seen in the shower, crouched down with her flesh rotting. After the shower, she looks over her skin which is beginning to sag off her arm. Her under-eyelids begin to droop as if sliding off of her face entirely and her teeth start to fall out. Ben begins to leave a salt barrier around his entire house, as he read online it would protect him. Abbie approaches him and he runs into the house. She slides Mallory's note under Ben's door and leaves. Ben watches her lock up the cellar and leave the property, so he acts quickly and breaks the lock. In the cellar, Ben finds a statue made of sticks with an animal skull on top. In the sticks he finds a photo of Abbie, Dillon, the baby and Ty. Ty's face is scratched out of the photo. Ben calls the police to report Dillon missing, but hangs up after he sees a photo of Mallory with her mother and Lily, the photo stolen from the marina bulletin board. Mallory and her mother's faces are crossed out. Ben runs out of the cellar.
Ben rides his bike to find Lily and calls Mallory, asking where Lily was. Mallory says she does not know who Lily is. At the playground, Abbie finds Lily and begins to walk off with her into the woods. Ben arrives just in time and sees them, but is stopped by bullies who begin to fight him for putting trash in their boat. Sara breaks up the fight, and Ben runs into the woods after Abbie and Lily. He sees Lily being pulled into the tree stump hole and tries to rescue her, but he is too late. He falls back and hits his head on a rock knocking himself out.
Ben wakes and heads back home. He finds the police at the house. Liam tells Ben that he knows he broke into the neighbor's house and beat up a kid at the marina. Ben tries to explain but Liam doesn't believe him. Ben talks with Sara as Liam talks to the police. Watching her pour milk into her coffee, he remembers that Sara cannot have dairy. He sees the flowers near her begin to wilt and rot and he realizes she is the witch. She tries to attack him and he strikes her with a knife. Liam runs in and stops Ben. Ben is arrested and taken by the police. Ben sees Sara whispering to the police officer and begs Liam to check in Abbie's basement. The police drive off with Ben and Liam tries to leave after him. Sara tries to get Liam to stay by offering him wine. He gets her a wine opener, but then tries to leave. She tries to seduce him and fails. As Liam leaves, he decides to check Abbie's basement as Ben asked him to.
Ben notices the officer is bleeding from the ears. The officer takes Ben to the water where he tries to drown him, a vision Ben had seen on the bus trip here. A dog attacks the police officer freeing Ben, and the officer shoots the dog. Ben begs the officer not to shoot him, and the cop shoots himself in the face. Ben takes his gun.
Liam finds nothing in the basement, but as he exits he sees Ty walking into a large barn shed. Liam follows him, and goes to the second story where he finds Ty has just hung himself. He sees Abbie's body ripped open, where the witch had climbed out of her before taking over Sara. Liam finds a shrine of sticks and candles, surrounded by photos with various people's faces scratched out. Sara sneaks up behind Liam and stabs him, causing him to fall into the candles and set everything on fire. Liam is able to escape and grab a shovel which he hits Sara in the face with. He watches as the witch adjusts herself inside Sara's skin after being hit. Sara attacks Liam but Ben shows up and shoots her. The witch climbs out of Sara's body as Ben helps his injured father to the car to escape.
The fire causes the photos to be burned, which makes Ben suddenly remember that he has a little brother, Nathan (Judah Abner Paul). He looks down at his cast and sees drawings of dinosaurs and remembers the old woman from the bus was speaking to his little brother as he drew on his cast, calling him "quite the little artist". He recalls Abbie speaking to his little brother when she came to ask for Dillon, as well as other memories. When his mother said she missed "her boys" she meant Nathan and Ben. not Ben and Liam. The witch had made Ben and Liam forget.
Mallory meets Ben and begins to ask where Lily is, having also remembered since the photos were burned- breaking the curse. They head to the tree in the woods where Abbie had taken Lily. Ben surrounds the tree with salt and pours gasoline around. He throws a rope down and tells Mallory to light the tree on fire if he's not back in ten minutes. Ben finds Lily and Nathan and helps them escape, narrowly avoiding the witch, who is now herself and no longer possessing the body of another. As he tries to climb out of the hole, the witch grabs him and pulls him back. Liam appears with the car and drives headfirst into the tree, hitting the witch as Ben escapes with Mallory.
After the incident, Mallory is asked by a therapist why Lily would talk about burning a tree. Malory tells the therapist that it must just be her nightmares, indicating that the gang is hiding the unbelievable story. Mallory and Ben share a kiss before he heads back to his mother's house, and she gives him a flower to remember her. Ben, Nathan, their mother and Liam all drive home together, possibly hinting at a rekindled relationship for the parents since the fathers' injury.
On the ride home, Ben examines the flower from Mallory. He realizes it is fake and remembers the wilting rotting flowers in the presence of the witch. Mallory is shown smiling eerily, while taking three small children out onto a boat for sailing lessons at the marina.
My thoughts on the film... I understand a lot of viewers may not find this to be the most original storyline., You have a creepy witch in the woods, possession, eating kids, bones cracking and body contorting, angsty teen with family drama, teen romance and somewhat satirical bullies, etc. I get it. But to me, this doesn't make the movie any less interesting. The dialogue in this film was mostly realistic, making the characters relatable and the scenes feel more genuine rather than staged. For example, when Ben asks his father about the HDMI port and his father asks if the TV is plugged in, or when Liam tells Ben not to let his coffee spill in the truck. These little details make a huge difference, making these conversations more engaging for the viewer, making our "father and son" seem more like actual father and son and not just actors, and letting us relate a little bit to the characters through our own experiences.
Including a less "traditional" family like Abbie and Ty, without playing into any dumb stereotypes was a huge win. They were unique compared to the standard character parents we see, but they were a happy couple and loving parents. Zarah Mahler's performance as the possessed Abbie was genuinely terrifying. While the film didn't have many jump scares, she was creepy enough herself. From the rotting, sagging and drooping flesh to her creepy demeanor and threatening tone- she was the star of the film. I was not expecting Dillon and the baby to just die like that and not be rescued, which I think actually made the film better. Not that I want anyone to die but if there really was a child eating witch/mother lady, she would not be sparing everyone and holding them under a tree for a midnight snack for later, buying Ben time to rescue everyone.
I could personally have done without the teen romance, unrealistic teen party and somewhat over the top bullies as I feel it is a bit cliché, but perhaps the target audience here is young people, and with our protagonist as a teenaged boy, we maybe need to see some of those things in order to develop Ben's character throughout the story. John-Paul Howard delivered a great performance, and I was surprised by how well he carried this role without being cheesy or improbable.
I enjoyed the twist at the end with Nathan and to be honest, I wasn't expecting it. In addition, I rather enjoyed the little details like Sara pouring the milk or Mallory giving the fake flower. There may be some plot holes or unanswered questions that I could be overlooking (i.e. Why does the witch live under a tree? Why does the tree disappear? Why does the witch take over only women, clearly it isn't only mothers because Mallory is not a mother... etc.) but overall, the film was well done and worth a watch.