While vampires and zombies are evergreen horror movie favorites, the motion picture arts have not been particularly kind to that bush-league cousin, the killer tree-spirit. Two of the better-known among relatively few examples are esteemed by bad movie aficionados: There was 1957’s drive-in special “From Hell It Came,” in which an actor lumbering around in a large tree-stump costume squeezed victims to death with his branches; and 1990’s “The Guardian,” a homicidal-wood-nymph thriller that flopped so badly director William Friedkin omitted any mention of it from his otherwise comprehensive career memoir.
There will, happily, be no such cringing required by either makers or viewers of “The Wretched,” an accomplished second feature by Brett and Drew T. Pierce (billed as “the Pierce Brothers”) that is good fun in a vaguely retro, “Lost Boys”-type teen horror way. The absence of marquee value in cast or franchise terms may relegate it to home formats. Still, this polished, well-paced middleweight nightmare will please most genre fans, while announcing the writer-directors as ready for major-studio assignments.
Definitely more in earnest than the directors’ prior “Deadheads,” a likably shaggy zombie-buddy comedy, this sophomore effort nonetheless doesn’t take anything too seriously, including its protagonist’s adolescent angst. Seventeen-year-old Ben (John-Paul Howard) is heading to join father Liam (Jamison Jones) for the summer in a lakeside resort community. But this isn’t a vacation: Ben has apparently been acting out since his parents’ separation, getting into mildly criminal hijinks that resulted in a broken arm (and this change of parental supervision). He’ll have to work at the harbor alongside dad, and otherwise keep his nose out of trouble.
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Getting off to a slightly rocky start, Ben reacts poorly to the discovery that dad is already seeing someone else (Azie Tespai as Sara), then skipping a planned introductory dinner to party with local teens. The latter are mostly rich brats, though he strikes sparks with fellow marina jobber Mallory (Piper Curda) — a prospect temporarily blown when he commits a drunken faux pas.
These blunders seem less important once Ben realizes that something is going on with the hipster couple (Zarah Mahler, Kevin Bigley) renting the bigger house next door. We’ve already seen the wife Abby and son Dillon (Blane Crockarell) unknowingly attract the attention of the wraith-like thing living under a tree while they’re out hiking on forested hills. That night, the family’s baby vanishes from its crib. The next morning, Abby is … different, and Dillon runs in terror to neighbor Ben. The morning after that, Dillon is also missing. Stranger still is that his parents now flatly deny they brought — or have — any children at all.
Ben’s attempts to alert others to this situation are dismissed as lies or delusion. Ether way, it’s taken as proof that he must be on drugs. Only Mallory is willing to snoop around with him, if jokingly at first. It’s increasingly no joke, however, as they realize they may be dealing with a malevolent spirit that can possess people (and move from one “host” to another). It also induces a kind of amnesia that makes victims forget their loved ones ever existed after this “tree-skin hag” claims them — an intriguing idea the Pierces’ script could have made more of.
“The Wretched” doesn’t bear close scrutiny plot-wise, but it moves at such a brisk pace, incredulity doesn’t really have time to settle in. The film successfully mixes together a lot of things, from the waterfront tourist-town setting of “Jaws” to a general teen fantasy-adventure feel that tempers (without weakening) horror content variably redolent of “It,” “Fright Night” and myriad other predecessors. If originality isn’t a strong suit here, the film’s conviction and polish make that a minor sin.
Relatively brief glimpses of the she-demon in her contortive, feral native state aside, the film mostly eschews fantastical imagery and overt violence. Instead, it opts for a more playfully Hitchcockian suspense approach whose tone is set by the hero’s rising panic, as well as the seriocomedy of his failure to convince anyone else what’s happening. With likable performances keeping us emotionally grounded in a fat-free narrative progress, this may not be terribly scary, but it has nary a dull moment.
Shot in resort communities on the northeast side of Lake Michigan, “The Wretched” (a not-particularly-relevant title that appears to have replaced “Hag”) is handsome and sufficiently atmospheric in Conor Murphy’s widescreen lensing. (He also shot another excellent small-town tale this year, the SXSW-premiered “Mickey and the Bear.”) A solid design and tech package is capped by Devin Burrows’ strong score.