Producers: Brett Pierce, Drew Pierce, Chang Tseng and Ed Polgardy   Directors: The Pierce Brothers   Screenplay: The Pierce Brothers   Cast: John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Jamison Jones, Azie Tesfai, Zarah Mahler, Kevin Bigley, Blane Crockarell, Judah Paul, Gabriela Quezada Bloomgarten, Richard Ellis, Ross Kidder, Amy Waller, Ja’layah Washington, Trudie Underhill and Sydne Mikelle   Distributor: IFC Midnight Pictures

Grade:  B

Old-fashioned in a good sense, “The Wretched” is, apart from its terrible title, superior to most of the bigger-budgeted horror movies that major studios have released over the last several years.  The screenplay by the Pierce brothers (Brett and Drew T.) will win no prizes for logic or even coherence, but the delivery is so skillful that you probably won’t mind the narrative lapses.

It’s also the best picture about a murderous tree ever made.  That’s not saying much, of course.  The lumbering South Seas growth of Dan Milner’s 1957 camp classic “From Hell It Came” was less frightening than the walking comic forest of the Krofft Brothers’ “H.R. Pufnstuf,” and even William Friedkin couldn’t stop people from chortling over the notion of a baby-eating tree in “The Guardian” (1990). The Pierces take much the same premise as Friedkin’s, but manage to turn it into something genuinely unsettling, if not terrifying.

The protagonist is Ben (John-Paul Howard), one of those teens troubled by the break-up of his parents.  Sent to stay for the summer with his dad Liam (Jamison Jones), who oversees a marina on the shore of Lake Michigan, he quickly clashes with some of the richer local kids, including bullying Gage (Richard Ellis), but makes friends with his genial co-worker Mallory (Piper Curda) and her younger sister Lily (Ja’layah Washington).

Something seems amiss, however, at the house next door to his father’s place.  At first the couple who live there, Ty (Kevin Bigley) and Abbie (Zorah Mahler), seem happy enough, with an energetic young son named Dillon (Blane Crockarell) and an infant they dote on.  But before long strange things start happening at their place, with Abbie’s personality undergoing a decisive change, especially after she runs down a deer and releases something from inside it when she guts it for food.  And when the kids disappear, and Ty claims not even to remember them, Ben is certain there’s a serious problem.

There’s more than a hint of “Rear Window”—or, more accurately, its teen-themed offshoot “Disturbia” as well as “Fright Night”—to Ben’s surveillance of the neighbors, and the juxtaposition of Dillon’s increasingly frightened experiences with that narrative thread adds a helping of child endangerment to the proceedings.  Occasional interpolations showing the deterioration of Abbie and Ty’s relationship increase the tension, as does a subplot concerning Ben’s response to Liam’s romance with Sara (Azie Tesfai), an attractive local woman.

Needless to say, the answer to the unsettling goings-on (which Ben unravels via a Google search) is a supernatural one.  Abbie has been possessed by a spirit inhabiting a gnarled tree in the nearby forest.  This ancient, hideous female figure, a “dark mother,” abducts children and takes them underground, where they are enmeshed in the tree’s root system and—apparently—slowly devoured while everyone forgets they ever existed.  Ben’s attempts to reveal the truth, with Mallory’s help, inevitably cause the tree-witch to target him, using others whom she’s possessed as her pawns.  (An attempt to drown him is foreshadowed at the start, which also includes a grisly—and somewhat puzzling—prologue, a flashback to thirty years prior in which a young babysitter had an unfortunate run-in with a possessed mother.)

“The Wretched” ends as you would expect it to, with Ben and Mallory working to outwit the malignant demon, save the abducted children and break the old forgetfulness spell.  The Pierces stage the confrontation nicely, with Marlena Feehery’s production design, Conor Murphy’s slick cinematography and Terry Yates’s efficient editing contributing to the mood and Devin Burrows’ score adding to the macabre atmosphere.  The effects by Stephen Imhoff and John Brennick and the makeup supervised by Erik Porn are surprisingly fine, too.  There’s also a clever twist in the final act, connecting neatly with the early scene of Ben arriving by bus at the town.  An epilogue inevitably closes with a portentous final suggestion, but that doesn’t seriously mar the overall effect of a solid chiller. 

A weak cast would have spoiled things, but the picture is blessed with a good one.  Howard proves an engaging teen hero, managing to make Ben’s potentially irritating qualities palatable, and Curda similarly overcomes Mallory’s tendency toward adolescent excess.  Though Mahler, Bigley and Tesfai can’t entirely surmount the demand to overplay their characters—Mahler, in particular, must slink around looking simultaneously seductive and sinister, a very tough job—Jamison gives nuance to Ben’s conflicted father, and Crockarell is ingratiating enough to make you really care about Dillon’s fate.  The Pierces secure solid work from the supporting players as well.     

“The Wretched” doesn’t reinvent the horror-movie wheel; it just proves that the old devices, if skillfully deployed, can still work their magic.