The Wretched (4 stars)

The Wretched

The Pierce brothers are at the helm of this entertaining horror, starring an excellent Zarah Mahler

Successfully drawing on both ancient evils and modern teen angst, The Wretched is a neat, entertaining horror whose makers clearly know how to utilise genre tropes to their best advantage. In their sophomore feature (following 2011's Deadheads), sibling filmmakers Brett Pierce and Drew T Pierce, who share writing and directing duties, create an atmospheric chiller that puts a fresh spin on a familiar fable.

It all centres around troubled 17-year-old Ben (John-Paul Howard), who has moved back to his father's coastal home in an attempt to stop him going completely off the rails after his parents' separation. He spends his time working at the marina and hanging around with local kids, until the next-door neighbours catch his attention. It's clear all is not well with Abbie (Zarah Mahler) and husband Ty (Kevin Bigley) and, when their young son Dillon (Blane Crockarell) goes missing, along with his infant brother – and Ty denies he has ever had children – Ben realises that something is seriously wrong.

With an 80s-set opening sequence having established the premise, and with the audience having seen a malevolent tree spirit following Abbie and Dillon home from the woods, there's never any doubt that what Ben is witnessing is real, even if no-one else believes him. Aside from some gruesome, cleverly staged set-pieces, The Wretched eschews showy scares in favour of ratcheting up the tension, as Ben desperately tries to get the evidence he needs to confirm his suspicions.

A great deal hangs on Mahler's excellent performance; Abbie looms ominously over her children and twists her body into bizarre poses, menace oozing from behind her smile. Similarly, cinematographer Conor Murphy brings a disturbing feel to this seemingly idyllic beachfront locale; his camera lingers on the edge of the foreboding woods, his framing often tight and unsettlingly askew.

As Ben's erratic behaviour upsets his exasperated father Liam (Jamison Jones), and a clearly-transformed Abbie turns on the most vulnerable members of her family, the film leans heavily into its most disturbing theme. Parents, it's clear, may not only be unable to protect their children from the horrors of the world but, in some cases, may be their greatest threat.

Available to watch on demand from Fri 8 May.