I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
If you have a sweet tooth for the horror genre, you’ve probably seen more vampire, zombie, werewolf and serial killer movies than you could shake a stake, silver bullet or handcuffs at. Fortunately, more and more films have been produced about witches, like Robert Eggers’ The Witch and this year’s Gretel & Hansel. Witch lore encapsulates a wide variety of tones and messages. Whether your figurative warty sniffer is out for the family-friendly allure of Hocus Pocus or the blood-spewing charms of Suspiria, there’s the right-sized pointed hat for everyone.
If thou would like to live more deliciously, filmmaking brothers Brett and Drew T. Pierce (2011’s Deadheads) cooked up a fun brew of nerve-shattering tension in The Wretched. The IFC Midnight release hit digital platforms over the weekend. The wicked tale follows a defiant teenage boy, Ben (John-Paul Howard). While visiting his father (Jamison Jones) for the summer, Ben makes a haunting discovery: a malevolent creature from the deep woods stalks the family living next door (Zarah Mahler, Kevin Bigley and Blane Crockarell).
For a horror-movie aficionado, The Wretched is a swirling bloody cocktail of nods to some of the genre’s most beloved titles, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Rear Window and The Evil Dead. Fans of horror clearly constructed it. However, it’s not merely a greatest-hits compilation. There are many new ingredients thrown into the mix to supply a bewitching flavor.
When we spoke with the Pierce brothers recently by phone, they detailed their fresh spin on the mythology.
“It’s a strange thing to navigate for us because, as a filmmaker, you always end up emulating the things you love,” Brett said. “You want to put your own sheen on it, so people don’t think it’s the same thing as something else that has come before. The fun part was researching folklore and creating new rules for our titular witch. Cinema has defined the rules for witches, just as they have vampires, werewolves and zombies. People go in knowing how they work. The original aspect for us was getting to do that with a witch creature.”
The siblings touched on their inspirations for their malicious fiend, a two-handed punch of Black Annis and Boo Hag. Black Annis is a boogeyman figure in English folklore. She has been described as an earthy crone with iron claws and a taste for human flesh, specifically children. Black Annis supposedly lives in a tree and comes out at night to skin children and eat them. To send your skin crawling further is Boo Hag. The slipskin creature derives from the Appalachian myth and is said to crawl into the flesh of women to bend them to its evil will.
“We’ve always been into witch folklore and digging into mythology. We really liked the concepts behind [Black Annis and Boo Hag], and we wedged them together. We added a few rules of our own that we thought made the story more exciting,” Brett said.
The challenge wasn’t meshing these two myths together for the brothers, but instead conjuring up original scares and including scenes with genuine dramatic impact.
“With terror, you never quite know if it’s working on set. It’s similar to comedy, in that you don’t know if it’s funny until later,” Drew said. “A filmmaker spends so much time mapping the story elements out that you begin to question if it’s still scary. Many of the ideas we had for the film had been sitting with us for over a year. So, it’s easy to forget what’s working.”
Brett added that horror scenes are the worst thing to watch during the rough edit phase. The sound design and musical score are not present to elevate the dread.
“They feel wrong and clunky until you get the full effect in there to make it work. It’s a long process before horror scenes truly feel like horror scenes,” Brett continued.
Working with the actors on the drama scenes is a horse of a different color, however. The Pierce brothers find that collaborating with talent on set is where the magic happens because you never know what someone will bring to set on any given day. What seems like a standard character beat can shine with an actor’s polish.
“We love horror movies and the frights that happen within, but you need to relate to the characters somehow or understand where they’re coming from. Some of our favorite works of horror, like Poltergeist, have the audience spending half of the movie with the characters to get involved with their lives,” Brett said.
It’s a simple idea made brilliant by the filmmakers. It’s all too tempting to get lost in the more terror-filled components of a story that you can often forget that there are essential parts that need to be worked on. If you didn’t get to know the crew members of Orca in Jaws before the killer shark came to collect, would you care about what’s going on? Indeed, some movies get by with thin characterization. That said, if the text is rich, as it is with The Wretched, the stakes need to be there.
The film allows you to spend time with the central character and grasp his worries and feelings. In classic John Hughes style, you follow Ben as he meets new friends in town and makes sense of his surroundings. He’s trying to piece together his parents’ divorce and why his father is dating someone else. That pain and confusion thicken the blood that is soon to flow.
Ben develops a bond with the neighbor kid, Dillon (Crockarell), after he appears one night in his house and claims that his mother, Abbie (Mahler), is not like herself anymore. The viewer knows this, too, when she has a strange encounter with a dead deer that the family hit after venturing in the woods. It’s through Mahler’s unsettling movements that the film injects most of its fear into the audience.
“A lot went into the [making of the body language],” Brett said. “Obviously, it’s a creature going into someone else and getting used to being under their skin. We wanted it to be crickety-crackity as if it’s learning to operate under the skin. A lot of that credit goes to Mahler and Madelynn Stuenkel [the latter of whom portrays the witch that possesses Abbie]. We couldn’t have found two better women to sell that look.”
The filmmakers joked that a bulk of their film education came from watching all the behind-the-scenes featurettes on the Lord of the Rings DVDs. While Brett and Drew collected wisdom from director Peter Jackson’s techniques, that love for the filmmaking process was developed because of their father, Bart Pierce. He helped to produce special editions for LaserDisc and DVD releases at 20th Century Fox. Coincidentally enough, Bart also worked on the special effects for the original Evil Dead film.
“We had a unique experience growing up. We were there when our dad was working on films like Aliens and The Abyss. We were obsessed with the process because our dad was through his work,” Brett said. “It was something that we devoured.”
With that in mind, you may have to ready your fork and knife for the physical release of The Wretched later this year. The Pierce brothers mentioned one jaw-dropping note about how they were able to achieve one of the film’s most unshakeable sequences (involving the witch creature bursting out of a human cavity). Fingers crossed that the behind-the-scenes video slips into the supplemental features.
For now, however, soak up the devilishly entertaining excursion that is The Wretched. It makes for a pleasantly spooky late-night hang out with a buddy or loved one who doesn’t mind some arm grabbing throughout.