Movie Review: The Wretched’s Monstrous Motherhood Is Tragic and Terrifying
3.5 out of 5 stars.
Written and directed by Brett and Drew Pierce (Deadheads), The Wretched is a little bit of a creature feature and a little bit of a witchy piece, rolled together into a gory and disgusting horror. It’s as bloody of a good time as a person could ask for, but the subtle infusion of monstrous motherhood is the real unexpected treat.
From Strait Jacket to Hereditary and solidified to icon status with films like Carrie and Friday the 13th, horror is wild about mothers. It makes sense. For much of recent culture, we’ve been a little confused on how we choose to label mothers. The most popular narrative is that mothers must always be sacrificing for their children, giving up a great deal of personal identity in favor of becoming a figure solely meant for nurturing. So, when a mother snaps, it’s especially horrifying.
The Wretched takes that terror one step farther.
The film enjoyed a warm reception on the genre festival circuit. It centers on a rebellious teen named Ben, who’s spending his summer working at a local marina. He makes the shocking discovery that a skin-walking witch, able to possess women, is preying upon the children of the town, making their parents and family forget they ever existed before dragging them off into the woods. It’s up to Ben to stop the witch when his warnings go unheard.
One of the more appealing elements of the film is its vaguely retro quality. It offers the same kind of simplicity as films like Friday the 13th or Halloween, with its suburban summer setting. This sets it up for a timeless interpretation, taking on the morals and stakes of any little town in any little place—which, in the mind of this critic, is a significant factor in its monstrous motherhood narrative.
I’ve previously discussed horror as a sounding board for an era’s social anxieties, especially when it comes to women, at length. Within the context of The Wretched, the witch targets the mothers of her chosen victims. She possesses the mother’s form as a means of getting close to the child undetected—truly frightening, but what’s particularly striking is who she views as vulnerable.
The witch’s first host is a young mother, beautiful and free-spirited. The first scenes in which we meet this woman, she’s taking her son on a hike and talking about how she learned to field-dress wild game with her father. The young mom’s performance of gender is just a tad off “traditional,” and that makes her the perfect victim.
The second host to the skin-walker is the girlfriend of Ben’s father, another example of nontraditional motherhood. The witch punishes “unfit” mothers by wearing their skin, brainwashing their partners, and taking their children. Follow that line a little bit, and it starts to sound like warnings that men prefer traditional femininity when choosing a woman to start a family with—a thought that’s perhaps just as fucked up as a child-abducting witch.
The witch of is a fascinating villain, horrifying and simultaneously arresting. A key component of the film’s lore is that she must make sure that the children she abducts are forgotten. If we’re to link this to the apparent thread of The Wretched as a critical meditation on neglectful motherhood, the witch can be seen as the embodiment of the ego of an absent mother.
As for the other parent, she has one very effective method of erasing the memory of a child. Taking the form of a beautiful young mother, one sexual encounter with the child’s father is enough to make him forget. His loyalty is only to his wife. This dangerous seduction is especially tragic when considering it through the lens of agency and obligation. Before any of us ever has a child, we are independent and sexual beings. Many of us are linked solely to our partner, with no need to stretch the boundaries of our love to someone else. Children complicate things, for better or for worse. Can regret be as powerful a seduction?
Further, the witch chooses a beautiful young host possibly out of her own anxiety. An original working title for the film was The Hag, and many scenes feature the skin-walker analyzing her own appearance as her ugliness begins to show on the surface of the host. The witch, quite literally, shows the ugly side of neglect and youth lost (depending on how you read the figure).
If we understand horror to be a whispered cautionary tale, warning viewers of social evils that we may fall prey to, The Wretched is a criticism of the parent who becomes detached and longs for their former self. It’s as tragic as it is terrifying. It weaves this strange and solemn narrative among lovely cinematography and A+ gore. Enjoy … if you dare.
The Wretched opens digitally and on-demand on May 1, 2020.
(image: IFC Midnight)
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