Tweak the hairstyles, adjust the fashions, and swap out the digital video for good ol’ fashioned celluloid, and The Wretched could pass for something you might have gone to see on a warm Saturday night in the ’80s or rented a decade later from Blockbuster. There’s nothing self-consciously retro about this modest, starless creature feature, which pits a teenage boy against the feral witch stalking his quiet neighborhood. (The score, in other words, isn’t some throwback symphony of synthesizer.) It’s more that the movie’s no-frills thrills recall the spirit of horror movies past: The Wretched would fit in nicely on a double bill with, say, Fright Night or The Gate, the rather wholesome teenage characters giving the whole thing a PG-13 vibe, even as the gnarly practical effects keep it firmly in the R range. At the onset of this stolen summer, it offers some consolatory summer fun—especially for those within driving distance of one of the drive-ins showing it this weekend.
The film is set in a sleepy seaside tourist town right out of an Amblin entertainment. It’s here that teenage Ben (John-Paul Howard) arrives by bus in the opening minutes, ready to spend the summer working for his dad (Jamison Jones), who’s in the early stages of divorcing his mom. Ben, who broke his arm during some folly of juvenile transgression (it involved a medicine cabinet and an open window), has lots to occupy his time, from a pretty, spunky marina coworker (Piper Curda) to the mixed feelings he has about meeting his father’s new girlfriend (Azie Tesfai). All the same, his attention keeps drifting to the neighbors’ house, and the half-glimpsed something that may be scrambling onto their roof at night and lurking underneath their porch.
That something, as we soon learn, came crawling out of a tree in the woods and now holds sway over the young mother (Zarah Mahler) living in the house across the street. Is her grade-school-aged son (Blane Crockarell) in danger? The Wretched, like Disturbia before it, becomes a teen gloss on Hitchcock’s timeless exercise in voyeuristic suspense, Rear Window, complete with appendage in a cast and trusty binoculars. Here, of course, the threat is supernatural, and the film’s cleverest twist on its borrowed formula is that the cadaverous villain can erase her victims from the minds of their loved ones. It expertly gooses the paranoia: How can Ben convince anyone that kids are going missing when no one remembers they existed in the first place?
Not that you can totally blame them for forgetting; the audience might struggle to remember these characters, too. Say what you will about Shia Labeouf, but he has personality to spare—a bit of movie-star swagger that might seriously have benefitted this new film’s generically earnest teen hero. In general, The Wretched seems disinterested in its adolescent dramatic trappings—the boilerplate beach parties, familial shouting matches, and whispers of puppy love. It only staggers to life when something wicked Ben’s way comes. The filmmakers, brothers Brett and Drew Pierce, know just how to frame their monster: crouching in the half-light, standing on unsteady legs in the background, and—in one solid peekaboo scare—sliding onto the nanny cam, two hungry little orbs of ocular green cutting through the digital darkness. Rarely resorting to a cheap jump scare, the two possess a casually tight grip on the fundamentals of horror.
Maybe the craft runs in their blood. The writer-directors are the sons of Bart Pierce, a veteran special-effects artist, and claim to have basically grown up on the set of Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead. (The pair’s last feature, a zombie movie called Deadheads, paid tribute to that seminal splatter flick with its title.) If nothing else, their unholy main attraction should make dad proud: It’s a great movie monster, a woodland hag moving with a subhuman croak of popping joints and snapping bones. Horror buffs, of course, have seen variations on this beastie before; it’s one of many familiar elements in The Wretched, a potboiler that doesn’t break any molds or reinvent any wheels. Still, there’s something to be said for setting modest goals and achieving them; if this really was some lost relic of the VHS era, it’d pass the blind rental test: There is a witch, and she’s as creepy as the box art would surely promise.