The neighbors are a little … odd.
Oh, it’s not as though Ben’s the ideal boy next dooor himself. The17-year-old does, after all, stare at the family next door through a pair of binoculars. He was prowling around the neighbor’s property, too—peering under the porch with a flashlight. And yeah, it’s true that back home, he broke into another neighbor’s house not so long ago—a break-in that led to a broken arm.
But there was something truly weird underneath that porch. Ben’s sure of it. And it seems to Ben (as he looks through his binoculars) that the couple next door has sex far more passionately and aggressively than normal people do.
And then there’s the kid.
One night, Ben finds Dillon—the young son of the neighbors—hiding in Ben’s bedroom. He begs Ben not to give away his location to his mother. And when the mother comes to the door searching for her little boy, Ben can see why. She’s … off somehow—gape-eyed and saccharine-tongued and clearly up to no good. When Ben lies and says Dillon’s not there, the conversation escalates quickly, with the cold-eyed woman hissing a threat to “snap that other arm.”
Dillon’s safely escorted back home to the house after Dillon’s father shows up. But Ben still has his worries. And when Dillon
fails to show up at the marina the next day, where Ben was supposed to give the kid boating lessons, Ben decides to investigate. When he knocks on the neighbor’s door to ask if Dillon’s OK, Dillon’s father seems genuinely perplexed.
“My son?” he asks. “I don’t have a son.”
The neighbors are odd all right. What’s odder yet? There seem to be fewer of them all the time.
Yep, there’s something pretty horrific at work in this tiny vacation community, and Ben is determined to figure out what it is. Kids, it seems, are disappearing. So the teen risks his life to try and put a stop to it.
But while that tension is at the center of The Wretched, perhaps the more poignant relationship we see is between Ben and his worried father. Ben, as noted, is a troubled kid. He’s had some drug issues that led to other problems, and it’s suggested that his trip to spend the summer with his dad (who recently separated from Ben’s mom) is particularly timely for the teen. His father, Liam, hopes that the change of scenery will be a positive catalyst for his son.
When Ben insists that their next-door neighbors aren’t normal—that there’s something sinister at work across the lawn—we see Liam’s love and concern for his boy, as well as the frustration feels when he thinks Ben’s losing his grip on reality. But we also see Liam’s desire to trust his son, too. The love he feels for Ben seems to make him at least partially resistant to the evil forces in play around him, and Liam winds up risking a great deal for Ben.
The creature (or creatures) at the center of The Wretched’s terrible goings-on is called by one source a “dark mother.” It’s hard to say, frankly, if there’s truly a spiritual component to the creature, or whether it’s simply a natural, if manipulative, monster. But the descriptor itself certainly has a lot of neo-pagan traction on the Internet, and it seems that both symbols and quasi-religious shrines are part of the dark mother’s own religious structure. (She makes both, which either suggests that she worships something herself, or it’s merely a creepy inconsistency in the movie.) She (and other creatures like her) also seem to possess other people—but physically, not just spiritually.
We should note that salt seems to repel the creature. Salt (perhaps because of its preservative powers) has been long thought a ward against the demonic and supernatural in many religions, including Christianity at a certain point in its history.
A woman wears a shirt with a skull on it that says “Demons 89-91.”
Ben turns voyeur early on at his father’s house. Through this tawdry pastime, he (and we) see some changes in the next-door couple’s lovemaking. The first time Ben sees them together, they’re giggling and laughing on the bed in what looks like a typical, companionable lead-up to sex. The next time he sees them, though, the woman is much more aggressive and animalistic. She wraps her body around him and takes control of the moment (We see her from the back, and we watch as she forces her husband’s hand away from her rotting or changing skin) before Ben’s forced to look away.
We see the woman stand in front of the window (again from the rear), much to the terror of her young son. She takes a shower and sits on the tiles, water pouring over her nude body. (Critical parts are shielded from view.) Ben, in doing some online research, comes across a photograph of a similar creature—a clearly naked female (we see the side of its breast) that seems mostly, but not entirely, human.
Ben and another teen girl jump into a pool in their underwear. She dives under the water and strips off his boxers, then appears to begin removing her own skimpy undergarments. Shortly thereafter, Ben leaves the pool, and we see his bare bum.
Ben also starts a relationship with a girl named Mallory, who works at the marina with him. They kiss once, while another would-be kiss is interrupted. Liam (who’s separated but not necessarily divorced from Ben’s mother) is also in a new relationship. Ben sees Liam and his girlfriend, Sarah, kiss deeply, and Ben accuses his father of “sleeping” with her.
We hear crass jokes. Girls walk about in bikinis, semi-thong underwear and wildly skimpy tops.
Let’s just be blunt: The creatures at the heart of The Wretched eat kids—and the movie doesn’t leave their gruesome dining habits to our imagination.
In a 35-year-old flashback that begins the movie, we see one creature gnaw on the body of a little girl: The dead girl’s head flops back to reveal the blood-and-gore-saturated neck. Later, we see the partially devoured remains of a little boy as the monster gnaws on her meal.
The creature often literally lives inside other organisms. We see it crawl out of a bloody deer carcass (after someone split the creature open and watched its regular ol’ guts slop out) and, later, dig its way out of human hosts. (Claws burrow out of a woman’s wrist at one juncture. Elsewhere, claws dig out of a woman’s abdomen, pulling it apart to escape the body.) Women under this type of creature’s control are often deeply grotesque-looking in their own right. Things seem to writhe underneath the skin at times. Dillon’s once-mother contorts her bones underneath her graying and withering skin—popping joints in and out. And she sometimes pulls leathered skin away and off her body. She pulls a tooth out, too—leaving the bloody molar in the sink.
When the creature whispers in somebody’s ear, that somebody often bleeds from it.
Someone gets stabbed in the back. A man commits suicide by shooting himself in the head. A dog attacks a man and is shot. Someone is hit in the face with a shovel. A teen nearly drowns. Something gets stabbed in the neck. A fire engulfs a tree and what lives (or is dying) down below. Ben’s good arm is injured. He cuts a woman’s arm. A man purposefully crashes his vehicle. We see YouTube videos of deer being dressed. Fish blood and guts are dumped.
About six f-words and 15 s-words. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch” and “sucks.” God’s name is misused four times, once with the word “d–n,” And Jesus’ name is abused once.
Ben confesses to Mallory how he broke his arm: He snuck into his neighbor’s house looking for Vicodin. It’s suggested that Ben’s stay with his father stemmed from that incident. And when Ben starts to hurl around what would seem to be crazy, careless accusations against other people, Liam assumes that Ben’s finding drugs somewhere. “We’re gonna find you a clinic and we’re going to get you some help,” he tells Ben, “because this isn’t working.”
We don’t actually see Ben take any illegal drugs, but the 17-year-old does attend a party and drinks heavily there. He downs a full glass of beer on a dare, and he suffers some ill-effects from his alcohol consumption (including a hangover the next morning). Liam and others drink beer, too, and Sarah (Liam’s girlfriend) asks Liam to open up a bottle of wine for her.
The father next door says in passing to his infant daughter that “Daddy’s going to drink lots of beers,” and the mother asks Dillon to hold her beer while she attempts to dress a deer. Someone smokes a cigarette.
A woman urinates in the forest. Ben vomits after drinking too much alcohol. We see someone sitting on a toilet. Someone sniffs his spouse and tells her that she needs a shower. Mallory tells Ben that she wore a wig through most of fifth grade, but finally stopped when it started to “smell like butt.”
Ben’s behavior can be boorish. He skips out on a dinner with Liam and Sarah to go to a party. When he returns to Liam (who was seriously worried about where he was), Ben refuses to apologize to Sarah, saying that he refuses to “apologize to some b–ch you’re sleeping with.” He dumps trash into the boat of an admittedly jerky marina customer.
If you took Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window, mixed it a dash of M. Night Shyamalan’s twisty flicks and then emptied a whole barrel’s worth of blood and guts in, you’d have something like The Wretched.
As far as horror movies go, The Wretched isn’t completely wretched. It’s a blend of icy atmosphere and cheap teen-scream jumps. But its very watchability in itself is almost a problem: We are, after all, talking about a movie where we see the bodies of children literally devoured by those who used to be their mothers. The central premise here is so revolting that we should be repulsed, not entertained. The conceit is ghastly, and as the movie twists into a more-or-less standard “let’s get away before the monsters get us” sort of flick, it almost feels akin to a murder confession delivered via knock-knock joke.
Perhaps it’s unnecessary to delve too deeply into The Wretched. It is, after all, a horror movie, a genre that many Christians would simply dismiss out of hand. And the content here—not just the blood, but the nudity and language, too—certainly deserves the movie’s R rating. Still, horror movies can contain some interesting elements and, at times, even spiritual truth within their inky black folds.
If only The Wretched was one of them.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.