In horror films, nothing good is ever down in the basement. In IFC Midnight’s new film, The Wretched this definitely holds true. It might even be an ancient witch who has possessed the neighbor next door. In case you don’t know: The film follows Ben, a rebellious teenage boy, who is sent to live with his father for the summer and work at the local marina. The idyllic tourist town offers little solace for him, however, as he is forced to deal with the local, privileged teens and his father’s new girlfriend. Ben’s problems grow increasingly disturbing when he makes a chilling discovery about the family renting the house next door. A malevolent spirit from the woods has taken ahold of the parents and starts playing a sinister game of house, preying upon the children and wiping away any trace of their existence. Ben’s suspicions of the supernatural horrors go unheeded and he launches a perilous crusade to put an end to the skin-walking witch’s reign of terror. Chilling and suspenseful, The Wretched offers a modern update to the retro young hero’s mission and promises to make viewers wary of every dark corner they encounter.
There are many elements that make this film stand out from other recent horror offerings. A few of those being the practical effects by Erik Porn, the eerie cinematography by Conor Murphy and the performance of Zarah Mahler as the witch. Another component worthy of mention is the original score by composer Devin Burrows. The grandness and intensity of the 66-piece orchestra he used to create the haunting sounds makes for a terrifying and suspense-filled viewing experience. We talked to Burrows about this more below. The Wretched is now available on VOD.
Wicked Horror: What was the initial appeal of The Wretched for you?
Devin Burrows: The Wretched is a horror cocktail with so many wicked ingredients; I don’t know where to begin! The character development, the sense of humor, and the twists were all highly compelling. The fairy tale meets creature feature concept also felt very fresh.
Brett and Drew, the Pierce Brothers, are very good at drawing the audience in with the characters and the story before things go wonderfully chaotic in the last quarter of the movie. I knew the film was going to require a lot of music, and I remember thinking: “this is going to be challenging, but it will be a blast to score”!
Wicked Horror: The Wretched directors are big fans of thematic film scores like Psycho and Poltergeist. Did you go back and watch these films to get inspiration for The Wretched?
Devin Burrows: I did watch Poltergeist! The Wretched is Spielbergian in a lot of ways. I remember watching Rear Window and Alien to get inspired as well. Alien is one of my favorite scores. Just like the script and the cinematography, many films informed this score; it also draws on inspiration from modern classical music.
While The Wretched has many genre movie nods, Psycho was a notable influence on the score, for instance; I think it manages to do something unfamiliar as well. We feel creatively driven to devise new and unusual forms. I hope we managed to contribute something original to the canon of film music with The Wretched.
Wicked Horror: We heard that you didn’t score The Wretched in chronological order. Which scene did you score first, if it wasn’t the film’s opener?
Devin Burrows: I began writing the music very early on when the directors were working on the script. In those first days, some great themes became the musical vocabulary from which I began to form phrases, sentences, and a narrative. I knew that the witch originated from a maw and that we needed a theme for her; I knew that Abbie and her son Dylan would venture into the perilous woods. These were the first scenes I began to score, armed with the script and the insatiable drive to paint the sonic scenery where the mystery would unfold.
Wicked Horror: The woods has its own theme which is very menacing. What instruments did you use to create those sounds?
Devin Burrows: To impart a unique animal-like quality to the woods, I used sarangi; we also used some other folk instruments like bowed psaltery. A lot is going on with music for the woods, though, and orchestral woodwinds and strings play an essential part as well.
In those early days, the directors came over to my place so that we could experiment with instruments and see which they felt would suit the movie. We had a blast, and Brett and Drew fell in love with the sarangi and bowed psaltery! Each creative endeavor, each film, requires a unique musical texture to evoke the right mental imagery. The musical instrument selection process is fundamental and differs for each project.
Wicked Horror: We read that you got to record The Wretched with an orchestra in Germany. What are the benefits of recording with an orchestra for a film like this?
Devin Burrows: Before the Covid-19 situation, I was able to travel to Germany to record with the Brandenburg State Orchestra for the wretched soundtrack. It was a fabulous experience! The contrabasses and brass players performed the low and ominous glissandi of “Wretched Encounter” with gusto. There is nothing like recording with real players! The level of expression and attention to detail is phenomenal! For horror films, the string section can produce some hair-raising sounds, of course! An orchestra playing mildly atonal or aleatoric sounds can give the feeling that something is not quite right and add layers of tension to support the drama on screen.
Wicked Horror: What scene in The Wretched was the most challenging for you to score?
Devin Burrows: There are some moments throughout The Wretched where the witch’s curse is remarkably meaningful. I wrote a piece of music that could represent the witch’s magic as the central theme of the film. This melody is used in many contexts throughout the movie, reharmonized and altered to be eerie and haunting or emotional and heart-touching. That was one of the challenges of the score and also the most satisfying part of writing it; I take great pride in the result. We hear this theme throughout the movie, including at the end.
Wicked Horror: At what point did you get to hear the sounds that Abbie’s body was going to make? Especially when she is standing naked at the top of the stairs. Did those sounds have any effect on how you scored those scenes?
Devin Burrows: I don’t think we heard those sounds until we were on the dubbing stage for the first-pass of the audio-mix. We were all stunned! Eliot Connors is responsible for those sounds; he is a fantastically talented sound designer and mixer and has worked on several video-games and prominent features. It was an incredible collaboration. He and I each left room for one another to maneuver. There are places where the sound effects take over and others where the music comes into the foreground.
The directors, Brett and Drew are film score aficionados; they’re into films like E.T. and The Lord of the Rings series. These are movies where the score plays a central role, and there are times when it carries the audience on an emotional journey. There are places when we put the spotlight on the impressive sound effects in The Wretched and places where we let the music take center stage.
Wicked Horror: The sequence when Ben is on the computer researching the mark he found, the score is very reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s from Edward Scissorhands. Did this pass through your mind at all when you were creating it?
Devin Burrows: I’m very flattered that it made you think of Danny Elfman’s music! I am an admirer of his work. Both works feel a bit macabre! We wanted the feeling of revelatory mystery that evoked the idea of forgotten people for that scene. It is inspired by the work of Bernard Herrmann and modern classical composers.
I study orchestral scores quite a bit, like those of Prokofiev and Stravinsky. What you’ll find is that all of your tastes, your influences, become a part of you. As you practice something more and more, like writing music, you start putting your stamp on it. Suddenly you’re summoning a unique musical magic. I think we conjured some forgotten spirits for that scene.
Wicked Horror: What is your favorite horror movie?
Devin Burrows: Rosemary’s Baby is a favorite of mine, as is Poltergeist. Put me down as a “classic horror” fan. I like a lot of newer horror films as well. I think The Wretched manages to deliver for fans of classic horror and people that like fun movies in general. I hoped audiences would dig it, and the response has been overwhelming!