“How To Game Google To Make Negative Results Disappear - BuzzFeed News” plus 3 more

“How To Game Google To Make Negative Results Disappear - BuzzFeed News” plus 3 more

How To Game Google To Make Negative Results Disappear - BuzzFeed News

Posted: 27 Jun 2019 12:00 AM PDT

New Studio for BuzzFeed News

Last year Adrian Rubin was sentenced to three years in prison and had to forfeit close to $10 million for running a payday loan scam and helping his sons, Blake and Chase, operate an illegal telemarketing business to sell worthless credit cards. His sons also received sentences of roughly three years in prison for their role in the scheme.

All three Rubins, who hail from the Philadelphia area, are now behind bars. But online, their good names have never been better.

Last fall, a woman using the name Dr. Adrian Rubin announced the launch of a new website to share climate change research and offer "a rallying point for those combating pseudo-science and climate change denial." Rubin described herself as a climatologist with 30 years' experience who lives in Philadelphia.

Her "about" page uses stock images of two different women, respectively titled "smiling attractive senior businesswoman wearing glasses" and "happy senior female hiker enjoying outdoor activity."

Around the same time, three other apparently fake Adrian Rubins were making their presence known online via personal websites, guest posts, and social media accounts. Rubin's sons also saw a similar surge in dubious online personas using their exact names and location.

The Rubin personas issue press releases, conduct interviews published on websites, offer grants and scholarships to high school and college students, and maintain profiles on major social networks. It's all part of an elaborate digital smokescreen created by at least one online reputation and SEO company hired to scrub the Rubins' criminal history from the surface of the internet.

Bots, deepfakes, and other forms of media manipulation continue to generate global concern about their ability to erode trust and seed false narratives in society. But coordinated efforts to game search results — the method by which billions of people access information every second of the day — haven't attracted the same level of scrutiny. This is despite it being an early and powerful form of platform abuse, and the fact that search manipulation campaigns often rely on exploiting Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, LinkedIn, and countless other services as part of their strategy.

It's given rise to a global reputation management industry offering to cover up past arrests, poor customer reviews, allegations of fraud, and other character-killing online content. These campaigns can pollute the online information ecosystem and enable people to hide important details about their lives from potential employers, customers, and romantic partners. Along with adding to the epidemic of fake social media accounts, they also litter legitimate websites with false information.

"It's a pretty fly-by-night kind of industry."

A BuzzFeed News investigation has found examples of executives, doctors, criminals, and even a Russian oligarch all benefiting from search engine manipulation campaigns to suppress negative content. In one example, the search results for Ian Leaf, a famous fraudster from the UK who also goes by Ian Andrews, are being influenced by an Ian Leaf persona that claims to be an expert in fraud prevention. This is a strategy to ensure positive content appears when people search for information about him and his crimes. The dubious Ian Leaf and Ian Andrews personas have also self-published books on Amazon to bolster their credibility and search results.

As for the reputation industry, practitioners who spoke to BuzzFeed News described it as an anything-goes field, lacking clear industry standards or ethical guidelines. The irony is that the reputation industry suffers from its own perception issues.

"It's a pretty fly-by-night kind of industry because what does it take to be a reputation management professional? A website," said Brandon Hopkins, the owner of reputation firms DiamondLinks and AfterHim Media.

Hopkins has been in business more than 10 years. Information gathered by BuzzFeed News connects him to the creation and/or maintenance of the Rubin and Ian Leaf/Andrews personas. Hopkins wouldn't admit his involvement in specific campaigns during a phone interview and did not respond to several detailed follow-up emails.

Along with criminals and other people looking to suppress negative search results, reputable brands and ad agencies also try to unethically game the system. Last month, outdoor lifestyle brand North Face and its agency, Leo Burnett Tailor Made, boasted about successfully "hacking" Wikipedia entries in order to replace top Google Image results with product placement shots. North Face later apologized.

Google says it invests heavily in thwarting attempts to game search results in violation of its policies. But reporting by BuzzFeed News shows it's possible to push search results for names, companies, and other specific terms off the top pages of Google, so long as you're able to spend money over time to make it happen.

That means the Rubins' criminal conduct could very well be suppressed from top search results by the time they're released from prison in 2021. Instead it's Dr. Adrian Rubin, at your service.

BuzzFeed News

Your reputation is, famously, what other people say about you, not what you say about yourself. Online, it's largely determined by the results people see when they enter the name of a person or company into a search engine like Google.

While you may carefully curate your own social media profile, your Google footprint can offer an unvarnished look at life, complete with all its blemishes, from bankruptcies to arrests to unintended viral infamy. Yet while it's impossible to control what people say about you all over the internet, for the right amount of money you can control the message on that all-important first page of Google, thanks to a cottage industry of consultants and flat-out spammers.

The reputation management industry highlights an emerging tension between people's desire to control personal data and information in the digital world, and the need for platforms to guard against attempts to suppress or remove information just because it's inconvenient or unflattering.

Andy Beal, a consultant and author of books about SEO and online reputation management, told BuzzFeed News that most reputation projects involve "using search engine optimization to try and push negative pages further down Google [results]."

"If you're trying to get positive things to show up in Google, those positive things need to be legitimate, be real."

To make that happen, Beal says he works to create high-quality, positive content about a client that reflects who they are. The goal is to give a client the reputation they've rightfully earned, he says.

"Your reputation is a reflection of your character. So if you're trying to get positive things to show up in Google, those positive things need to be legitimate, be real — they need to be an extension of the great things that you're doing," he said.

The approach of producing positive content for a client can also be abused as a way to cover up negative search results for someone in the midst of a reputation crisis. BuzzFeed News previously revealed a network of 10 websites and several fake Twitter accounts that were apparently used to improve the online reputation of Russian billionaire Suleyman Kerimov after he was arrested in France. The sites and Twitter accounts were used to fill the web and social media with flattering content about him in order to suppress the legal issues.

"In a legitimate reputation clean-up campaign, you focus on rehabilitating a reputation, not just whitewashing the internet with fake, positive content," Beal previously said of that campaign.

Kerimov's personal foundation denied having any role in the campaign at the time, and said the billionaire did not own the sites. A court set aside a charge of money laundering against him last year, but the case was reopened by prosecutors in March. Kerimov denies the charges and is fighting them in court.

His example highlights the blurred line between a legitimate reputation campaign and one that crosses into unethical or manipulative territory.

For example, consultants will often use shady shortcuts to improve a client's search results, such as buying articles or links about clients from so-called link networks. These are networks of websites that are created with the sole purpose of building up domain authority and PageRank, two measures of a website's search ranking. The operators of these networks then sell a link back from their sites to anyone willing to pay.

"I have a link network and between me and a few associates we probably have 50-plus sites of our own and 500 more in the space we have access to," one reputation consultant told BuzzFeed News. (He asked not to be named so he could speak freely and not have his sites downranked by Google.)

Savvy players also acquire once-popular domains with high search rankings, and then begin selling links to anyone who wants to be placed on the site. The Frisky, for example, was once a popular site for commentary and reporting from a female perspective. Today the domain is owned by a Serbian music producer/marketer who sells posts for roughly $130. Ads for the site highlighted its high domain authority score to potential customers, though The Frisky was downranked by Google after inquiries from BuzzFeed News.

To protect the integrity of links as a measurement of online credibility, Google forbids "any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site." It has banned agencies for buying links for clients. But there's still a thriving open market for buying and selling links. You can also find people offering to pay others to click on specific URLs in the hope of elevating a preferred search result and burying inconvenient content. (Google declined an interview request for this story.)

The desire for high-quality backlinks has also led to the rise of the SEO scholarship. For years, reputation consultants have advised clients to offer a scholarship in their name, usually for a relatively small amount such as $500 or $1,000. The goal is to secure a mention of the scholarship, and a coveted link back, from a legitimate college website with an authoritative .edu domain name. In some cases, these scholarships are created with no intention of ever paying out, according to experts who spoke to BuzzFeed News.

"Some rep management companies will go get the links on as many of the scholarship sites as possible, and then never deliver the goods. They'll never give out the scholarship," Nick Cuttonaro, owner of the reputation management firm Link Builders, told BuzzFeed News.

As of today, you can find financial aid sections of US college websites that list awards with names such as "ArtificialGrassRecyclers.com's College Scholarship" and "YourMesotheliomaLawFirm.com Scholarship." ArtificialGrassRecyclers.com did not responded to a request for comment. It's unclear whether its scholarship has been awarded.

A spokesman for Shrader & Associates, the law firm that owns YourMesotheliomaLawFirm.com, told BuzzFeed News it created a scholarship "to get students to think about their future and put into words how they intended to be a benefit to their communities. We also challenged the authors to familiarize themselves with the history of asbestos and mesothelioma."

The firm said it paid out the scholarship twice in the three years it was offered, and discontinued it due to "the diminishing number of applicants." It declined to say whether it created the scholarship as a result of working with a reputation or SEO consultant.

Seemingly taking its own advice, SEO company the HOTH also offers a "HOTH SEO Scholarship."

To win the $1,000 prize, a student must write an essay about digital marketing, post it publicly, and include at least one link back to thehoth.com. The HOTH gave out the award this year, but it's unclear if it has been awarded every year since being announced in 2016. The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Two other scholarships listed on the same college page as the HOTH's are in the names of Andrew and Irina Dorko. These are real people with online personas. They appear to be trying to cover up their arrest in 2015 for cocaine possession. The charges against both were later dismissed. But in the wake of their arrests, the couple suddenly launched new social media accounts and personal websites that used stock images for their profile photos. Andrew Dorko did not respond to emails, and messages sent to two websites operated in Irina Dorko's name did not receive a reply. The Florida lawyer who handled their cases confirmed the charges were dismissed but declined additional comment.

Fake personas for Adrian, Chase, and Blake Rubin also offer scholarships, and they've been successful at securing mentions and backlinks from real schools. Washington State University and the University of Maine listed the Chase Rubin Scholarship in the financial aid sections of their sites. Washington State University removed a listing for the Chase Rubin scholarship after being contacted by BuzzFeed News. The University of Maine did not respond to a request for comment, and the scholarship is still listed as of this writing.


Homepages for some of the Rubins' scholarships.

Chase Rubin's name is being used by three seemingly fake online personas: a photographer, real estate developer, and private financier. His brother, Blake, now shares his name with a fake female travel photographer, web developer/tech worker, and real estate developer. All claim to live in Philadelphia. They use stock images for their profile photos and in some cases the different personas link to each other. In one case a Facebook profile for real estate developer Blake Rubin links to the website for tech worker Blake Rubin. Oops.

Their father, Adrian, is also represented by multiple personas. One is a freelance creative director whose site describes him as having "spent over 30 years working all over the city of brotherly love." He recently offered health tips for freelancers in a piece of sponsored content published by Philadelphia Weekly, a reputable newspaper. On his website, he uses a stock image of a white man. On Twitter, he's Asian. He's joined online by Adrian Rubin the Philadelphia tech worker and Adrian Rubin the Philly real estate developer. (Emails sent to Adrian Rubin and his lawyer did not receive a reply.)

Then there's the work done for Ian Leaf/Andrews. He was found guilty of 13 counts of fraud in 2005 for bilking more than $50 million from UK taxpayers. Prior to his extradition to the UK, Leaf was living in a mansion in Switzerland, owned two private planes, and was married to his third wife, a former Miss Sweden.

The press covered his case closely, resulting in reams of articles about his lavish lifestyle and the fact that he had previously escaped extradition to the UK by traversing the Alps by foot from Italy back to Switzerland.

"He used his private jet to transport his children to school and his wife from Geneva to London to get her hair done," reported the Daily Mirror. "All paid for through a string of bogus companies around the world, borrowing money from Leaf's own bogus bank and all claiming bogus losses to reap huge tax dividends."

CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform / Amazon

After serving his sentence, Leaf resurfaced publicly in 2013 in media reports that revealed he'd changed his name to Ian Andrews and was still involved with one of his former companies, Home Funding Corporation, or HFC.

As early as 2015, online personas in his two names began pumping out content on websites with domains such as ianleafreviews.com, ianandrewsfraudster.com, and ianleaf.com. Accounts were set up on Medium, Twitter, and LinkedIn. The reborn Ian Leaf billed himself as "the Fraud Watcher," a consultant dedicated to "preventing businesses in every industry from falling prey to the deceitful practices of fraudsters."

The persona has conducted interviews and published books on Amazon, sometimes with Ian Andrews listed as a coauthor. As with the Rubin personas, the author photo used for Ian Leaf is taken from a stock image site.

As a way of capturing searches related to his name and HFC, the company the convicted fraudster was involved with, an Ian Leaf persona self-published a book, Ian Leaf's Starting a HFC Business at Home. In the book, HFC is an acronym for "high fashion clothing" rather than Home Funding Corporation, his actual business. But the title still works for SEO purposes. BuzzFeed News contacted his attorney for comment but did not receive a reply.

If any of the above practices seem like a breach of professional ethics, they aren't. Reputation management consultants who spoke to BuzzFeed News say it's an industry with no rules or agreed-upon standards. Ethics are purely a matter of personal opinion. What works on Google is what matters most.

"It's like the Wild West," said Hopkins of DiamondLinks and AfterHim Media. "There's not much regulation, there's not much industry oversight, there's not necessarily good best practices."

Beal, the SEO expert, called tactics such as fake personas and scholarships that never pay out examples of the "black hat, unethical techniques" that have emerged in the industry.

Cuttonaro of the Link Builders acknowledged creating a persona for one client, but said it was due to "exceptional circumstances."

"We never do that. This is like the one and only time that we had to do that to create diversions and distractions," he said.

The client in question said they were facing death threats related to past work that involved the US government. Cuttonaro was asked to devise a strategy to muddy search results in their name. (An FBI special agent who spoke on condition of anonymity told BuzzFeed News that the person in question was facing a credible ongoing threat. As a result, they are not being named in this story.)

Though Cuttonaro said the situation was an exception and related to national security, he also utilized one of the sites created for a fake persona to place articles for other clients and to promote male enhancement supplements. His company also created a scholarship for the fake persona and was successful in having it added to college websites.

Cuttonaro initially said he was unsure if the scholarship was paid out, or if his company was involved in its creation. Then he said he recalled being involved in it but that "we never got any applications … I cannot remember one." Therefore, it was never paid out, he said.

"I'm letting you know, I'm one of the good guys," he said.

"The Rubin personas are a perfect example of the lawless nature of the reputation management industry."

Telling the good guys from the bad can be difficult, and the Rubin personas are a perfect example of the lawless nature of the reputation management industry. Hopkins has been in business for more than a decade, and his LinkedIn profile says he is currently studying for a master's in divinity.

He called it "a very normal thing" to create fake online personas to influence search results. "Generally, it's something that the client would request," he said. A page on his website says "about half" of the work he does for clients involves creating what he calls alter-ego online accounts to help with search result suppression and link building.

But when asked about his own work on the personas for the Rubins and Ian Leaf, Hopkins would not admit to any involvement.

Hopkins is linked to the suspicious Rubin and Ian Leaf/Andrews personas via SSL certificates, domain registrations, and other information found by BuzzFeed News. His company, AfterHim Media, is listed as the vanity publisher of two of Leaf's self-published books. The Google Forms used for Adrian, Chase, and Blake Rubin scholarship applications were also created by AfterHim Media. Another connection to Hopkins is the fact that the SSL certificate for adrianrubinscholarship.com is also used by tantrum.info and douglaspitassi.info, two domains owned by Hopkins. The only other website with that same SSL information is rookstoolinterviews.com, a site that publishes interviews with people who have paid for reputation management campaigns, including personas for all three Rubins. There are also direct connections between the Rubin and Ian Leaf/Andrews personas. The websites blakerubin.info and ianandrewsfraudster.com have the same SSL certificate, and an Adrian Rubin persona is featured in an article on ianleafreviews.com.

During a phone interview, Hopkins wouldn't admit to any involvement with the Rubin personas.

"I'd have to check, we've got lots and lots of clients," he said.

He did not respond to follow-up emails asking about those clients, and about connections between him and the Ian Leaf/Andrews personas.

During the phone interview before he broke off contact, Hopkins said his rule of thumb is that he only uses tactics that he'd feel comfortable disclosing to his client.

"I want to provide a good service to the client, so at the end of the day he can be proud of the work that we did … and that it is done in an upstanding way," he said.

Of course, that rule doesn't seem to matter much when you're working for Ian Leaf or Adrian Rubin.

"Who is Adrian Rubin?" asked US District Judge Eduardo Robreno at a sentencing hearing last August.

Rubin had pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, one count of conspiracy, and two counts of mail fraud. Years earlier, when faced with a slew of charges, Rubin became a cooperator and helped the government take down Charles M. Hallinan, the so-called godfather of payday lending, a lawyer who worked for both men, and Scott Tucker, a loan mogul who drove a race car and was featured in the Netflix series Dirty Money. In the courtroom and throughout the process, Rubin was remorseful. At one point he bought the bad debt of people who'd been ensnared by scammy payday loans so he could forgive it.

In court, Rubin, then 61, "tearfully described himself as a 'horrible person' trying to become a better one," according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But the judge wasn't sure if the contrite man in front of him was the real deal. In 1997, Rubin was released from prison after serving a one-year sentence for tax evasion. He promptly got into the payday loan business, according to the Inquirer, and later helped his sons sell worthless credit cards to people with low incomes.

"Is he the criminal who engaged in criminal activity over a long period of time, or is he the informed cooperator who cooperated against several codefendants and helped take down a pernicious industry? Even Mr. Rubin probably doesn't know," the judge said.

Thanks to the reputation campaign in his name and that of his sons, answers to that and other questions will only get harder to find online. ●

Recovering From Google's Core Algorithm Updates - Forbes

Posted: 12 Jul 2019 12:00 AM PDT

On June 2, Google made an unprecedented move: The company announced a broad core algorithm update a day in advance of the actual rollout.

Over the next several months, you'll undoubtedly see many post-mortem analyses of the algorithm update, with ideas on what might be needed to recover. Having helped many sites recover from Google's core algorithm updates, I'll share the four most common issues we see when clients seek our help with an algorithmic penalty.

Since Google's "Fred" update on March 7, 2017, one of the key things we've observed with core algorithm updates is that they seem to be an incremental tightening of criteria related to these four key areas. Every algorithm update seems to tighten the noose a little more, eventually bringing down sites that performed well for years.

Low-Quality Or 'Thin' Content

Most of the popular content management systems, such as WordPress, offer handy navigational features that can create a large number of pages with a low word count. Since Google's earliest Panda update, though, it seems that search algorithms prefer pages with more words on them. We've found that sites with a higher percentage of pages with low word counts will sometimes struggle in the rankings. While greater content length doesn't always correlate with better content, it's hard for great content to be under 200 words.

When a client comes to us, we immediately scan their site for pages with a low word count, or "thin" content. On many occasions, deleting these problematic pages can result in significant ranking increases.

With WordPress sites, installing a simple word-count plug-in is the easiest way to find problematic pages. For all other sites, website crawlers and site auditing tools can instantly show you these pages. Additionally, using the "site:domain.com" operator search in Google helps find weird doorway pages or image attachment pages that Google may have indexed in error.

Bloated Site Design

Website users demand speed, and updates to Google's search algorithms are challenging sites that have large images — which can cause pages to load slower — and offer a poor user experience. If a competing site delivers a faster, better experience, then it's likely that the bloated site will consistently struggle for search engine placement. To remedy this, trim your pages down so that each page loads in under five seconds.

Site speed is rarely a stand-alone issue. As reported by Search Engine Land, aggressive advertisements also have been cited by Google representatives as being a potentially negative ranking factor. Removing ads and shrinking image file sizes are sometimes all it takes to get load times down, improve the user experience and increase site traffic (typically following the next algorithm update).

Overoptimized Pages

Keyword usage is one of the first things we check after an algorithm update, and we've consistently noticed that overoptimized sites — those that use a high number of keyword — tend to move lower in search rankings over time with successive algorithm updates, while more conservatively optimized sites tend to move upward.

We're not fans of being overly focused on keywords. However, keywords can demonstrate the relevance of your site to algorithms.

Accordingly, assessing problematic pages to determine their keyword density has proven to be an excellent way to recover from algorithmic penalties. By comparing the keyword density of your pages with that of the top three pages on Google, you can get a fair idea of how many primary keywords you should be using on each page.

Poor-Quality Backlinks

While you may have never engaged in link building, it's possible that your site has still acquired many backlinks. Backlinks were the original ranking signal for Google, and they still play a significant role. If your site has a large number of low-quality backlinks from "questionable neighborhoods," it's possible that your site won't fare as well after core algorithm updates. While we're not disavowing as many files as we used to (by uploading a list of harmful backlinks via Google's disavow links tool page), we still see the impact of poor quality backlinks on websites.

Using Google Webmasters tools, as well as third-party backlink checking tools, you can see what sites are linking to yours. Examine these sites for relevance — how related are they to your site? Also, look for any indication that these sites may be violating Google's recommended guidelines. Sites that are not ranking well in Google (or not indexed) should definitely be approached with caution as it may indicate that Google has a quality problem with that site. Ideally, your backlinks will be coming from related sites with evidence of good traffic (i.e., sites that get a lot of social shares).

Getting high-quality backlinks is the best defense against low-quality backlinks — it's even better than trying to disavow low-quality links. Seek partnerships with related websites and blogs, and find ways to collaborate to help provide useful content for their readers in exchange for your ability to get greater visibility for your site.

While we're seeing many high-authority websites being rewarded after Google's algorithm updates, we're continuing to see the algorithms be less forgiving of simple mistakes. Sites can recover from algorithmic penalties by optimizing their pages and establishing more domain authority — or a better online reputation. An eye for detail and a system for monthly improvements are the keys to staying ahead of search algorithm updates.

Billionaire Peter Thiel's Major Accusations Against Google Teaches a Crucial Lesson for Leaders Looking to Mix Politics and Business - Inc.

Posted: 17 Jul 2019 06:30 AM PDT

There's nothing like a massive fight between the biggest players in the field. Add in some political intrigue and you've certainly got the makings of an epic scene. Or at least one you've probably seen on HBO. 

But this isn't about Game of Thrones, although there's plenty of intrigue. This week, Silicon Valley tech investor and Facebook board member Peter Thiel leveled an accusation against Google that the company was committing "treason" by helping the Chinese military, and that the senior leadership of the company had been infiltrated by the Chinese.

That's a pretty significant claim, that at least to my knowledge, hasn't been backed up by any evidence. Thiel seems to argue that because the company declined to continue a U.S. Defense Department contract but continued to work with China to get its search engine back online, Google's actions amount to a betrayal of its country.

Ironically, it's worth noting that Google said yesterday during Congressional testimony that it has abandoned its project to build a search engine that would meet China's censorship requirements.

You are your brand.

To be clear, Thiel wasn't making the comment as a representative of Facebook, but that's a distinction without a difference when you are a high profile and outspoken board member. 

Even when you aren't officially representing your company, you are your brand's most visible--and valuable--asset. How you chose to spend your time and what you say and do have a direct impact on your company. 

Thiel's comments came at a conservative political conference, and it's hard to separate his comments from his affiliation with Facebook, Google's largest competitor in the digital advertising space, as well as his affiliation with a White House that hasn't been too fond of the search engine. 

A lesson on glass houses.

The lesson here is simple: politics is bad for business. It's certainly Thiel's right to comment on anything he chooses, but that doesn't make it a good idea. Throwing firebombs at a competitor, whether for political purposes or not, also falls into the category of "things to avoid."

First, there's the whole glass houses thing. If a board member of Facebook wants to start talking about companies the government should be investigating, he's probably already got enough on his hands. Facebook literally just got hit with a $5 billion fine over repeat privacy violations.

And when Thiel had an opportunity to give shareholders more say over Facebook's direction, he voted with the other board members and management to maintain the status quo--the same one that gave us the privacy issues in the first place.

Second, there's a larger principle at stake. Throwing shade at a competitor is one thing (though it's rarely the best play), but accusing it of treason is another. Especially since it has become a term that gets thrown around too often, but has a serious meaning. Thiel knows what it means, but I suspect he doesn't actually care because the buzz associated with putting it out there is worth more than the actual definition. 

A better option.

If you throw a firebomb, one of two things will likely happen, and neither is particularly good for you. If you're right, fine, but you'll have given up the high road, and sacrificed some of your own credibility simply because you chose to go that route. And in Google's case, I suspect that if Thiel's accusation were true, the relevant agencies are probably already aware.

On the other hand, if it isn't true, you'll end up helping your competitor and looking like a fool. You'll also lose credibility, and everyone will question you the next time you have something to say. In the back of their mind, they'll remember you can't be trusted when it counts.

Here's a better option: just focus on doing your thing better than anyone else. Stop worrying so much about everyone else, and trust that the best way to beat your competition is on the playing field, not in the cheap seats. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

Fantasia Review: Body Count and Identity Have No Limits in 'The Wretched' - The Film Stage

Posted: 19 Jul 2019 08:09 PM PDT

Fantasia 2019 Review
Independent; 95 minutes

Director: Brett Pierce & Drew T. Pierce

Written by on July 19, 2019 

A witch that feeds on forgotten children has taken hold of a sleepy lakeside village in Michigan. It's because its victims are "forgotten," however, that nobody ever seems to notice. Not only do the adults assist it by either providing themselves as vessel (it steps into the skin of women) or servant (men are turned to drones with a whisper), they have no reason to fight back since what they would be fighting for no longer exists to them. Maybe this "dark mother" will infiltrate a target's home and steal away control from within or perhaps it will lure in unsuspecting bystanders who still remember and thus have become liabilities. We can never know how long it's been happening and ultimately must assume it's never stopped.

As a result, writers/directors Brett and Drew T. Pierce don't have to pretend this supernatural creature isn't real. They can begin The Wretched thirty-five years in the past by showing us exactly how it ensnares and destroys its prize without any subterfuge or distraction. It quite literally eats a child before readying for a second course, proving its physical power to us even if we're still uncertain as to the more nuanced psychological terror it also wields. To then witness a present-day Ben (John-Paul Howard) struggling for air with head held underwater means whatever trouble he's in probably stems from that same source. And with a quick rewind of five days—his arrival at Dad's (Jamison Jones' Liam) home—we realize we're about to find out for sure.

What's interesting about the film's progression is that the nightmare isn't happening to Ben's family. He's merely a bystander watching the strange activities unfold next door. First it's the scratching of an animal leading him to his neighbor's porch. Then it's their young boy (Blane Crockarell's Dillon) turning up in Ben's room announced, deathly afraid of his mother (Zarah Mahler's Abbie). And finally it's Dillion's father (Kevin Bigley's Ty) acting like a zombie, more perimeter guard than human being. As soon as anyone else confronts these issues, though, everything quickly reverts to normalcy. Ben is literally the only person who senses something amiss while his being an unreliable source (a drug incident that forced his mother to send him here looms large) ensures he's on an island alone.

Between his parents' impending divorce, Liam's new girlfriend (Azie Tesfai's Sara), and the entitled rich kids making his life a living hell, Ben has but one solace: Mallory (Piper Curda). Even she can't help but give her new friend a skeptical glance when he mentions witches (an ominously prevalent upside "A" engraving igniting his Google search). Having a great sense of humor, she often provokes him and his neighbors to revel in the impending drama too. What we know and she doesn't, however, is that Ben's telling the truth. We saw this creature kill already and witnessed its path into Sara and Ty's home. The question then becomes a matter of who's next? Who will it hurt to quiet Ben and what will he do to stop it?

This course of plotting is effective because it makes him out to be an amateur sleuth we can therefore use as our entry point into the story. Rather than fear for his wellbeing, we align ourselves with his curiosity to solve the mystery surrounding him and accept the helplessness of his situation as someone who isn't in a position to afford the benefit of the doubt. So when Mallory's little sister becomes a target, we know he has no one to turn towards for help. And even if he could, the thing running amok could easily turn them to its side (if it hadn't already). This witch has been untouchable for decades if not millennia and no untrustworthy teenager is going to succeed where thousands have unknowingly failed.

That the Pierce Brothers are unafraid to lean on this realization is The Wretched's greatest asset. Instead of trying to build a franchise, their intention is to tell a standalone story wherein body count and identity have no limits. Letting their malignant force destroy life in scene one provides the latitude to never ease off the gas. If a kid disappears? Assume he/she is gone forever. If the witch borrows a woman's body? Assume anyone near her has already forgotten any child they've ever loved. Because beyond the creature effects and inevitable confrontation between Ben and this demon lies the reality that our protagonist isn't the only piece we can't trust. If the filmmakers can force their characters to forget, why not make us forget too?

How they execute this layer of intrigue leaves a bit to be desired since the in-film timeline and our own aren't identical and thus can't both be rendered airtight without tipping their hand completely, but there's a lot that the Pierce Brothers do to ensure everything makes coherent sense throughout. This isn't a simple monster movie that ignores the more complex details of its mythology. So don't get discouraged when things begin to feel generic in their Rear Window meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers way. We need that level of familiarity to distract from the underlying ramifications of what's happening. If the antagonist is letting someone like Ben see beneath the veil it has held shut for so long, something else must be going on.

It's therefore nice that we're not dealing with people we're supposed to intrinsically like. Ben isn't a saint (he tries to steal from a convenience store shortly after we're introduced to him) and does himself no favors when it comes to building good will with his father or Mallory. This penchant for self-destruction that we all have is exactly what this witch banks on because it creates an extra barrier in front of its very visible actions. It knows how to manipulate the people around it to get what it wants. That's what's scarier than seeing Mahler contort with a stutter while staring at us with dead eyes. It barely has to lift a finger until feeding time and no one will know when or if it does.

The Wretched is now playing the Fantasia International Film Festival.

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