CALLERI: Make some popcorn, dim the lights: ‘The Wretched’ warns about the house next door

IFC MidnightJamison Jones (left) and John-Paul Howard are father and son facing unexpected terrors in “The Wretched."

There are characters in the new horror movie “The Wretched,” who have reason to become concerned about a tree. There’s an unearthly aura to what some folks call the sentinel of the forest. The tree is old and gnarled and has a ghoulish presence, which is a beacon to the terrifying experience some will face.

The horrors aren’t pleasant. They’re uncomfortable and not readily explained. All of this begs the question: Do trees have skin? Not bark, but some kind of human-like epidermis with the ability to, good grief, absorb the local townspeople?

In “The Wretched,” written and directed by brothers Brett and Drew T. Pierce, the impending divorce of his parents causes teenaged Ben (John-Paul Howard) to act up. His rebellion has resulted in a broken arm. It’s decided that it’s best if he spends the summer living with his father and working at the same lakeside resort marina where dad works.

Ben doesn’t quite fit in, the other guys his age are bratty snooty-snoots who come from money, but a girl, Mallory (Piper Curda), dances to her own kind of music and befriends him. Perhaps she feels sorry for him or is just curious about what not having a lot of money actually means.

Ben and his father’s neighbors are a pleasant enough family, which includes a little boy. Or maybe it doesn’t. Perhaps there’s no kid at all. Something strange is going on in Ben’s new world and the story the Pierce brothers are telling is straight out of a grim folk tale. Numerous clues are dropped as to the eerie nature of life by the lake.

Ben’s curiosity about the people next door (a traditional horror movie trope) will lead him down a not very pleasant garden path. Noises are heightened. Shadows seem longer. The Pierces are adept at keeping you off-kilter. Ben is terrified by what he saw. The pregnant Rosemary of “Rosemary’s Baby” was also certain about what she was seeing and hearing.

The strong screenplay is rich in character development. The audience is following Ben, the fellow holding their flashlight, and because he’s relatable, the movie is given an extra layer of believability. “Peter” isn’t crying wolf here.

Ben recognizes immediately that what he saw is not only terrifying, but utterly dangerous to his father and himself. Bone-crunching gore and the specter of the beast that fights on haunts the teen’s mind. His education about witchcraft has to be swift and assured.

The directing Pierce brothers have clearly absorbed a lot of movies. It’s obvious that they love Alfred Hitchcock, which is why there’s a hint of “Rear Window” about the story. Also look for tokens of respect to “The Lost Boys,” “Jaws,” “Goonies,” “Fright Night,” and “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.” Long-time terror fans will see other homages.

Evocative cinematography by Conor Murphy and a haunting music score by Devin Burrows add to the fear. The acting and the production values are top-notch throughout. Jolts build upon jolts.

Robert Frost wrote a poem about stopping by the woods on a snowy evening. “Between the woods and frozen lake, the darkest evening of the year.” Imagine if the tree in “The Wretched” wasn’t the only pall of horror on the block.

The movie, suitable for adults and all teenagers, can be accessed via On Demand through cable and satellite systems, as well as digital streaming, including from Vudu, YouTube, XBox, Prime, and GooglePlay.

“OUR MOTHERS” COMES TO VIRTUAL CINEMA: Writer director Cesar Diaz began a documentary project hoping to tell the truth about massacres of male villagers by the military during the civil war in Guatemala in the 1970s and 1980s. His interviews with wives, mothers, and aunts compelled him to change his mind.

Their shocking stories of brutality and misery are now told in the narrative fictional feature – rooted in true stories – he’s made about the missing men, especially guerrilla fighters, who disappeared in his native country.

“Our Mothers” follows a young anthropologist named Ernesto (a very good Armando Espitia), who works for the Forensic Foundation in Guatemala. It’s 2018, and his entire nation is mesmerized by the trial of soldiers who are charged with sparking the civil war. Ernesto's job is to identify the bodies of the missing as they are found because of the statements of witnesses. Based on testimony from an older woman, Ernesto thinks he has found a lead that might guide him to the whereabouts of his father, a guerrilla fighter who never returned to his family. His mother is adamantly opposed, but Ernesto’s passion is to search for the truth. He must earn the trust of the villagers he meets. There are still dangers; however, he is determined to complete his mission.

Ernesto’s journey in this well-made, dramatic, and uncompromising movie reveals facts he believes all Guatemalans need to know.

Diaz’s story is personal and drawn from what happened to his own family. His father, a guerrilla fighter, was one of the so-called “disappeared.” Diaz has stated that “in a post-dictatorship, post-war situation,” he believes there “must be collective acceptance, which can then be followed by individuals moving on.”

“Our Mothers” is a presentation of the Virtual Cinema program, which is a program uniting independent movie theaters and distributors. The film can be watched through northparktheatre.com. Rental rates apply.

  

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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