Let me start this by saying that representations in film matter. The prelude to this statement was me watching the documentary series on Netflix about Woodstock ’99, Trainwreck (2022). One astute journalist pointed out that if you want to understand the collective ethos of the time, one need only look to the biggest box office hits in that historical moment. Rather than love and peace, the backdrop of Woodstock ’99 was brimming with male sexuality and angst in films such as American Pie (1999) and Fight Club (1999). Popular culture reflects what mainstream society chooses…wants and enjoys consuming. Let us temporarily peer into our collective id.
Horror films often reveal the fears of middle- to upper-class (often white) men. Which makes sense since that is mostly who writes, directs, and produces horror films. While women producers, creators, and consumers are on the rise, the major audience continues to be predominately male. With that in mind, I hand you the 2019 Pierce Brothers film, The Wretched.
Whilst I do not presume to infer the intent of the creators, I can only say that The Wretched presents women as, well…wretched. Please don’t get me wrong, I did not hate this film: the plot was good, the intensity was thrilling, characters were intriguing, and the ending was okay. Alas, this piece is not a review but rather an unapologetic extended observation. If I had to sum it up, I would say that The Wretched shows an undercurrent of fear of and loathing for women. Look, I know these guys didn’t make up the archetype of woodsy witches who seduce men and eat children. That has been around since at least the 1300s.[i] But, come on, have we made no headway in male perceptions and depictions of women? It’s one thing to have the evil witch – but virtually no female character in this film was free from fault.[ii] Needless to say, The Wretched is told from the male point of view through the main characters Ben Shaw (John Paul Howard) and his father Liam (Jamison Jones).
But let’s talk about the women. The film opens in 1985 with teenager Megan (Sydne Mikelle) arriving at her babysitting job at the Gambles. What transpires first, prior to her meeting with the family, is a telephone conversation between Megan and her mother. What we hear is what may be called today a “smother” or a slightly overbearing mother who wants to make sure her daughter is not off having an illicit tryst because, as we come to find out, Megan’s aunt was pregnant by age sixteen. After that prelude, we abruptly meet a ghastly representation of a woman eating her daughter followed by Mr. Gamble shoving the babysitter in with the cannibal witch. It is no wonder that we see, soon afterwards, that the origin of this female incarnation of evil lurches forth from the damp crevasse of Mother Earth.
In a story as old as the witch trials, nontraditional women invite associations of witchery. The three main female characters are Mallory (Piper Curda), Sara (Azie Tesfai), and Abbie (Zarah Mahler). Overall, Mallory is one of the more positive depictions: she is quite different from the local girls who frequent the docks. She curses, doesn’t wear a bikini, speaks her mind, and she doesn’t take Ben seriously when he tells her about the witch. Nonetheless, spoiler alert…even the best representation of womanhood (according to The Wretched) can fool you and suddenly transform into a witch. Sara is the interloper in Ben’s life and he lovingly refers to her as the bitch that his father is sleeping with. She is the scariest thing of all besides the new (younger) woman in Liam’s life; she is, wait for it….a vegan! (clutches pearls) Most notable in The Wretched, is Abbie, who becomes the primary vessel for the witch. She is a bit of a badass: Liam immediately identifies her as an outsider, a vacationer; she is aloof, doesn’t care how others perceive her, drinks beer, guts a deer, and is immediately on Ben’s radar. The audience learns quickly that the witch (notably Abbie) can make people lose their mind. As she leans in and whispers her spell, her target is rendered mindless and submissive to her will. We get the sense she can do this to anyone, but it seems as if she prefers to brainwash men, as we see her husband Ty (Kevin Bigley) float throughout the narrative unconsciously covering her tracks.
Fast forward to the men. We meet our main character, Ben Shaw, and his father, Liam. Ben is an angsty teenage boy who moves in with his hard-working father after getting in some trouble for breaking and entering into a neighbor’s house searching for Vicodin. Ben’s mother gets minimal screen time outside of her bookending the plot. What do we know about mom? Well, it seems like Ben’s parents had a bit of a contentious divorce – and the audience is positioned to judge his mom, Nora (Amy Waller), after working-class Liam buys his son a bicycle to get around and Ben dismisses the gift because his mother is giving him a car. Overall, Ben’s mother is absent other than our knowledge that Liam folds her out of photos, her son was popping pills in her care, she sends Ben away, and she gives him a car (and a nice one at that). Her larger purpose is to stand in opposition to Liam, thus lionizing him as one of our modest heroes. Ben and Liam are the only ones who eventually recognize the curse, fight back, and protect others as only a true patriarch can.
Alone in a world of dangerous women. Surrounded, their defenses diminished by the words and wiles of women. All males are in danger from the women around them, especially those closest to them. Not only do witches beguile grown men, but they also try to eat the young ones. Neighbor Ty is quickly under the spell of his wife Abbie, so much so that he forgets he has children. His infant son, Sam, is consumed by the witch and replaced by a bundle of sticks without his so much as batting an eye. Next on the menu, son Dillon (Blane Crockarell), who seeks asylum from his mother in the arms of men as he befriends his neighbor, Ben. While we come to find out that both Ben and Liam are vulnerable to the brainwashing of women, with each other’s help they are able to break the spell, thankfully in time to fight off the witch and save Ben’s brother (hmm, sensing a theme here).
And now for stereotypes. This apple doesn’t fall too far from the Garden of Eden. Women get close to men, brainwash them, tempt, and use them, and therefore, they cannot be trusted. But look, this is not to man-bash at all. We women can be pretty discourteous with one another too, and we see this when Mallory calls JJ (Gabriela Quezada Bloomgarden) the “local ho” after Ben falls victim to her advances after she cajoles him into skinny dipping so the local, more privileged kids can literally catch him with his pants down for a laugh.
So, what do we make of all this? If The Wretched was a success at the box office amidst a pandemic, can this be indicative of the acceptance of negative female stereotypes in that particular moment?[iii] Perhaps not coincidentally, this US horror film rose amidst the emergence of the #MeToo movement – a time when political heads made overtly misogynistic comments, women staged one of the largest one-day demonstrations in US history, more women ran and won seats in Congress, battles were fought for the Supreme Court and the right to govern women’s bodies, several rich women paid to gain elite college entrance for their children, and the battle of the sexes raged on. By definition, a stereotype is a widely-held, oversimplified, and fixed perception of a person or group often rooted in prejudicial thinking. If that’s the case, we should consider intently what it means if popular culture that depicts women poorly is widely produced and voraciously consumed without question. Who, then, is truly wretched?
The Wretched is streaming on Netflix.
[i] For a fun history of the witch archetype check out this piece by Lillian Stone on The Takeout, A not-so-brief history of witches cooking and eating children (thetakeout.com)
[ii] The only female free from any culpability was the younger sister of Mallory, Lilly who played almost no part other than needing to be saved by Ben.