(US - 2020)
It gets off to an iffy start with a 1980s prologue featuring glimpses of an Etch-a-Sketch and a Rubik's Cube accompanied by a catchy synth-pop jam that serve to illustrate the continued IT-and-STRANGER THINGS-ificiation of modern horror, but it fortunately moves to the present day after the opening credits. Teenage Ben (John-Paul Howard) is spending the summer at a lakeside town with his dad Liam (Jamison Jones), who manages the local marina and puts him to work. Struggling with his parents' separation--and not pleased that his dad already has a girlfriend (Azie Tesfai)--Ben has a flirty rapport with co-worker Mallory (Piper Curda, a Disney TV vet who's the closest thing to a "name" here), but is distracted by some strange goings-on at the house next door. Through a convoluted chain of events, he becomes convinced that Abbie (Zarah Mahler) has been possessed by a witch--a "dark mother born from root, rock, and tree who feasts on the forgotten"--who gathers children and takes them into the woods to be sacrificed. The reason there isn't a panic and how this witch has gone undetected dating back to the '80s prologue? She has the ability to wipe her victims' existence from the memories of their loved ones. It's an interesting concept that the movie kinda bungles--when "Abbie"'s son becomes a victim and her husband (Kevin Bigley) no longer remembers him, that's all well and good, but Ben and Mallory still remember him and comment that he didn't show up a the marina to go paddle-boating. The Pierce Brothers have an obvious affection for '80s horror and throw in some visual shout-outs to THE SHINING and David Cronenberg's THE FLY, and they deserve some points for taking the '80s horror aesthetic and updating it to the present-day instead of crafting yet another snarky, reference-packed exercise in retro pop culture fetishism. Ben's inability to convince anyone that Abbie is a witch is a direct homage to FRIGHT NIGHT (and REAR WINDOW and, more recently, DISTURBIA), but the script's internal logic doesn't hold water, and the third act is curiously very sluggishly-paced when it should be kicking into high gear. The performances are better than expected for this sort of thing and there's a legitimately surprising twist late in the game. So to that extent, flaws and all, THE WRETCHED is slightly better than most of its ilk, and it's not hard to see how it managed to find an audience at the nostalgic comfort of drive-ins during These Uncertain Times™, but were it not for the unusual circumstances of American moviegoing in 2020, it probably would've debuted at your nearest Redbox with little notice. (Unrated, 95 mins)
(UK/US/Hungary - 2020)
EX MACHINA or, for that matter, the lesser-known THE MACHINE. It also owes a huge debt to a veritable inventory of influences but it manages to transcend its surface familiarities and genre cliches to become its own film thanks to some intelligent writing, surprising emotion, and top-notch production design. The feature debut of writer/director Gavin Rothery (who worked on the art department for MOON), ARCHIVE centers on scientist George Almore (Theo James of the DIVERGENT films), who's nearing the end of a three-year contract at a top-secret research facility in the remote mountains of Japan. He's been hired to develop an AI android program and is alone except for two prototypes named J1 and J2. The first experiment, J1 is a large robot that lumbers around, is silent except for a few sounds, and can perform simple tasks with strict supervision. J2 is a modified, smaller version of J1, more mobile and with the ability to speak and assist George with specific duties, and she's often left in charge of keeping an eye on the childlike J1. George is working on J3, a sleeker unit that almost resembles a human being. But he's distracted--not just by Simone (Rhona Mitra in a couple of Skyped-in or hologram appearances), the ballbusting corporate exec who keeps checking on him--but by the memory of Jules (Stacy Martin of Lars von Trier's NYMPHOMANIAC), his late wife who was killed in a car accident shortly before he took the job in Japan. He's still able to connect with Jules via "Archive" an AI with an analog program that allows up to 200 hours of limited, low-tech interaction with the consciousness of a deceased loved one, and Jules periodically contacts him to let him know that she's OK.
Unbeknownst to Simone, George has been using his AI work with the J series androids to harness Jules' consciousness, creating a template from pattern recognition, with the intention of converting the analog signal to digital in order to store "Jules" into the updated and almost human-like J3 model. Each of the J androids houses different facets of Jules' personality, and while J1 isn't articulate enough to convey anything aside from grunts and sighs, it's J2 who begins to feel rejected by her creator, ultimately attempting to sabotage his work and destroy J3. ARCHIVE isn't trying to kid itself into believing it's not liberally borrowing from the likes of not just EX MACHINA, MOON, and the work of William Gibson, but also SOLARIS, SILENT RUNNING, and BLADE RUNNER. A big plus is that it's not content to merely go through the motions, finding its own place in the AI subgenre with complicated, conflicting emotions and some pretty heavy scenes involving the heartbroken J2, who's grown tired of being kept occupied with cartoons and kids video games. In the wrong hands, ARCHIVE could've easily veered into the realm of the unintentionally hilarious, but Rothery displays some remarkable confidence for a debuting filmmaker. He gets outstanding performances from a never-better James, as well as Martin--cast in three roles as Jules in flashbacks, the J3 model, and the voice of J2--plus a Tangerine Dream-ish score from GRAVITY Oscar-winner Steven Price, and he wraps it up with an ending that's either going to knock you on your ass or be a total deal-breaker (I'm in the former camp). This was supposed to be a big title at this year's canceled SXSW, so it ended up on VOD and in a handful of open theaters courtesy of the lowly Vertical Entertainment, who are to be commended for branching out beyond their usual DTV and Redbox swill and acquiring something that has A24 written all over it. ARCHIVE is a highly-recommended gem that will have a sizable cult following in no time at all. (Unrated, 109 mins)