How low-budget horror movie The Wretched became America's No. 1 film
At the start of the year, the biggest movies set to be released in May looked like Fast & Furious 9, Spiral: From the Book of Saw, Black Widow, Scoob, and Artemis Fowl. Instead, the coronavirus outbreak prompted studios to either postpone the movies' premieres or announce that they would debut on a streaming service. The most successful new film, according to Box Office Mojo, has been a supernatural indie-horror movie called The Wretched, which has dominated the website's daily chart since it was released on May 1. As of Thursday, The Wretched — about a teenager who discovers that a malevolent witch is living next door to his father — had been the No. 1 film in America for three weeks.
"It’s actually been a complete shock and kind of insane," says the Detroit-raised Brett Pierce, who directed the film with his brother Drew. "We were a little movie from Michigan. We always aimed for the moon, but with an independent film you think, Yeah, we’ll come out in a few theaters, and we’ll play for like a week, and maybe ten people will see it. Most people are going to see it when we land on a streaming service at some point. Each week it just kept on getting bigger, it was one of those things where you just don’t believe it as it’s happening. We’re going to be a Jeopardy question one day, because we’re going to be the lowest-grossing most successful film."
The success of The Wretched is not simply down to lack of competition. With multiplexes closing across the country in March the movie's distributors, IFC Midnight, pivoted and began to reach out to drive-ins to see if they were interested in booking the film.
"IFC were planning a release probably in fifteen theaters and then COVID hit," says Brett.
"The release date was set and it wasn't going to change," says Drew. "For a while there it was, 'Well, guys, it’s not going to be in any theatres, [but] we’re still going to come out on VOD. We were disappointed at first but completely understood because of the pandemic."
"[Then] they mentioned drive-ins," says Brett.
"Every week, IFC would be like, 'We’ve got these couple more drive-ins that are open, that are safe and willing to play it,'" says Drew. "And then a couple more days would go by and, 'Oh, there’s a couple more.' They eventually opened it up on twelve, I think. We were like, Oh, wow, we came out in twelve, looks like quite a few people came and saw it. We were like, that’s probably the best we’re ever going to do. And then each week they kept on adding more drive-ins and the movie kept getting more people there."
As of last Thursday, the film had grossed just over $350,000 at the box office. That's not a figure that would have anyone at a major studio dancing down the aisles, but it is much better than nothing and actually not bad at all for an indie film made for very little money. "It would be considered low budget," says Brett. "I don’t use that term because it automatically makes people think there’s something wrong with it. [The budget was] not a lot. To give you a sense, there were a couple of nights I slept on the couch for the wardrobe department, because there weren't enough places to stay."
Both the brothers have attended outdoor screenings of The Wretched, whose release this weekend expanded further to over 45 drive-ins.
"I’ve seen it — it sounds terrible — I’ve seen it three times," says Brett with a laugh. "I actually went last night!"
"That was super surreal," says Drew of watching the film under the stars. "I felt like I was being transported back to when I was ten when my Dad would take me to like Planet of the Apes marathons at the drive-in in Detroit. But it was a really good feeling. The funniest part is though, most drive-ins, the sound plays through your FM radio. Our sound designer is this really super-talented guy, he did all this work on the movie, and he texted me, like, 'So, my 7.1 sound mix is playing through your car stereo?' I was like, 'Yeah, sorry man. But it’s so cool!'”
Brett admits that he is reluctant to overly celebrate the film's success given the current circumstances. "It’s a weird thing for Drew and I," he says. "We’re really happy with the success of the movie but also feel bad about being happy when things are so dark for people. But then you tell yourself [it's] a safe escapism. We’re a little bit relieved when things aren’t not so nice."
Brett got a very early glimpse at the low-budget horror movie world thanks to his father Bart Pierce, at one time an aspiring filmmaker himself, who worked on the special effects for Sam Raimi's legendary 1981 debut The Evil Dead. "I was 2 years old and Drew was a newborn, essentially," says Brett. "They had piled into [our] basement in Detroit to finish the final horror sequences in the original Evil Dead, my Dad and his buddy Tom Sullivan. I was just so curious about what Dad had been doing. I had been kept away from the basement because I think my Mom was terrified of scarring me, because they were bringing in snakes and cockroaches and all this stuff. I finally got away from Mom, and I went down there and I saw this projection on the wall. Dad was showing the ending sequence of Evil Dead it to Sam and all the guys, like the first pass at doing this nasty, gory meltdown sequence. I was completely destroyed. I didn’t want to go into that basement my whole life. I was the older brother, but I made Drew go down there for me for the next fifteen years."
After moving to Los Angeles, the pair made 2011's Deadheads, a zombie-comedy. "We went totally broke making that movie," says Brett. "We had finally kind of recovered financially from being independent filmmakers, and getting real jobs — and we decided to go broke again."
The pair hit on the idea of combining the witch subgenre with the creature feature.
"We found this really cool mythology about a witch called Black Annie, this witch that lives underneath a tree and eats children," says Drew. "Then we found another cool myth called the Boo Hag, this Appalachian myth about this skin-stealing creature-witch. We took those and combined them with some of our own ideas, and we felt like we had our own unique witch mythology, and we got really excited because we’d never really seen a whole lot of witches as a creature."
The Pierces returned to Michigan to shoot the film, whose cast includes John-Paul Howard (Midnight, Texas), Piper Curda (Teen Beach 2), Jamison Jones, Zarah Mahler, Kevin Bigley, and Blane Crockarell. "Michigan was a huge advantage for us," says Drew. "All our friends are there, all our resources are there. We shot the movie in the area that we used to go camping when we were kids. We got our mum to work as craft service and our dad is our PA."
Brett and Drew's mother has also assiduously tracked the success of the film over the past few weeks.
"Our mom is addicted to Box Office Mojo, which is funny," says Brett. "She calls us every couple of days with updates."
The brothers hope to remain in the horror genre for their next film.
"We got really excited when we got to reinvent a witch for ourselves, with The Wretched," says Brett. "We’ve always had the burning want to do the same thing for the werewolf. I love a lot of werewolf films but, as Drew always points out, some person wakes up naked in a park and doesn’t know what happened to them. That's the werewolf story over and over again. But we have kind of a real world take that we’re really really excited about."
Hopefully, by the time that gets released, we'll be able to see it inside.
"Just for the sake of our sound-mixer alone!" says Brett.