The Wretched, the latest offshoot from America's apparently flourishing regional horror scene, first presents us with a puzzle of sorts. After an early Eighties-set prologue in which a guileless babysitter meets her doom at the hands of a child-munching creature stumbled across in the basement of an otherwise unremarkable suburban home, we shift ahead to the present day, where child-of-divorce Ben (John-Paul Howard) is shipping out to Michigan to stay with a dad who runs a marina. The puzzle lies in how and where that creature is going to recur, because we know a feature operating at this constrained budgetary level would be unlikely to shell out for creepy-crawly effects it isn't then going to reuse. Only after a full reel of lakeside coming-of-age medium-jinks (drinking, vomiting, nightswimming with bonus humiliation) do the writer-director siblings Brett and Drew Pierce provide us with an answer: the creature is a witch who's haunted this community and its surrounds for far longer than 35 years, and who's now re-emerged looking for a new form to take.
Anyone anticipating some lavish del Toroesque exercise in mythological reimagining from that synopsis should scroll on by; this is entry-level horror, meat-and-potatoes in its treatment, bordering on the basic. That the Pierces are chiefly interested in snaffling the allowances of sleepover guests with access to VOD is apparent from the casting of Howard, a resolutely vanilla Everyboi, and there's no real sign they intend to explore the notion that witches were containers for civilisation's worst suspicions and prejudices, as Robert Eggers' unnerving The Witch did. We get some suggestion this ancient evil's return is connected to the community's generally dismissive attitude to its women (Ben's father has folded a family photo to exclude his ex), but this witch is predominantly framed as a lank-haired bad mama, lurching out of darkened crawlspaces to cast a spell on the local daddies and gobble up their toddlers.
Accept its limitations, and the film is watchable enough, something like Disturbia with claws (Ben's the only one who can see the threat the witch poses) or an extended episode of Eerie, Indiana. (I suspect the Pierces have their heart set on overtaking the Duffer brothers as this moment's pre-eminent Spielbergian siblings.) It actually has a far stronger second half than first, as the evil starts to pass from host body to host body, cuing analogue-looking transformations that gesture in the direction of make-up great Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London). Still, no-one over the age of fifteen is likely to come away too rattled by it: your correspondent was struck above all else by a (not un-Spielbergian) aside on the characters' favourite flavour of Starburst. Useful to know that cherry comes as a standard option in the US, but it may not speak altogether favourably of the horror element of your horror movie when its primary aftereffect is to prompt a temporary spike in confectionery sales.
The Wretched is available to rent via streaming platforms from Friday.