Written and directed by: Adam MacDonald
Starring: Nicole Muñoz, Laurie Holden, and Chloe Rose
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Be careful what you wish for--someone might be listening.
Teenage angst: we’ve all been there, right? The awful mood swings, the raging hormones, the overwhelming sensation that you are so very alone and nobody will ever get you—for some of us, this all may have even been wrapped up in goth phase. (Note: if you were a 90s teen, you definitely went through a goth phase). Regardless, nobody misunderstood you worse than your parents, who were (probably) quite well-meaning but also at a complete and total loss as to how to deal with your bullshit, resulting in a bunch of slammed doors, screaming matches, and music blaring through headphones in an attempt to drown it all out. But who among us was hardcore enough to cast fucking black magic spells on our parents? Writer/director Adam MacDonald imagines this very scenario in Pyewacket, a spooky slow burn set in the desolate woodlands of New England, a region that’s obviously no stranger to the occult.
High school student and occult enthusiast Leah Reyes (Nicole Muñoz) finds herself stranded there, practically in the middle of nowhere when her mother (Laurie Holden) unexpectedly announces that she’s decided to pack up and move up north, away from their suburban home. Still reeling from the death of her husband (and Leah’s father), Mrs. Reyes has decided her only recourse is to leave a house that’s become more like the site of a perpetual wake. Leah is very much unhappy with the decision, as she’ll be further away from her group of likeminded goth friends. An already tumultuous relationship becomes even more unstable when Leah’s resentment bubbles to the surface, leading to her mother’s blunt reprisal: “your friends are losers—and you’re becoming a loser, too.” With these words rattling around in her head, Leah consults her occult texts and performs a ritual to summon Pyewacket, a vengeful demon that she hopes will kill her mother.
If that sounds completely fucked, rest assured that Leah immediately regrets this, thus setting the stage for an intense—yet weirdly playful—fallout, where the girl wonders just when—or if—Pyewacket will claim her mother’s life. Imagine the worst argument you ever had with your parents, the one where you said some really abhorrent shit that you wished you could take back—and increase the tension and remorse tenfold. Leah finds herself walking on eggshells, convinced that something awful will happen at any moment. This haunting (of sorts) begins innocuously, with Leah’s conscience doing most of the legwork: a trip to a quaint boutique becomes a crucible of guilt as her eyes are conspicuously drawn to witch decorations in the store’s Halloween display. A greeting card carries an unusually ominous (and specific) warning about being careful what you say because you never know who’s listening, sufficiently freaking the girl out. Clearly, something is afoot here, and it would seem Pyewacket has a twisted sense of humor by teasing out the consequences of the girl’s actions.
Such coyness is indicative of MacDonald’s slow burn approach here, as he’s content to create suspense through suggestion, leaving more explicit horrors to the imagination or reserving them for the climax. Pyewacket thrives a gradual sense of escalation: Christian Bielz’s evocative photography forges a spooky ambiance from the barren wilderness surrounding Leah’s new home, effectively setting the stage for the series of mysterious events. A fleeting glimpse of something lurking behind a tree (or maybe not) graduates to strange knocking sounds in the attic, even though nothing is found there after Leah takes a peek. One morning, Leah wakes up in the woods without explanation, prompting her to ask her friend Janice (Chloe Rose) to stay with her for a sleepover that goes horribly awry. Soon enough, it’s not a matter of if something horrible will happen but a matter of when—at one point, the tension is so tightly wound that MacDonald coaxes a jolt from the innocuous sound of someone plopping a laundry basket onto a table.
MacDonald consistently puts you on edge like that throughout Pyewacket, essentially leaving you waiting for the guillotine to drop on Leah and her mother. As the film unfolds, this becomes an increasingly dreadful sensation since these two prove to be such an affable pair: at first, it seems like MacDonald will paint in broad strokes, with the mom being a one-note horror show that totally deserves to be sacrificed to a pagan entity by her cool goth daughter, but the script shapes up into a more nuanced depiction. Obviously, Mrs. Reyes is burdened by the loss of her husband, and Holden maintains a difficult, slippery balance between her worst moments—in which she all but disowns her daughter—and her better ones, when she reaffirms her love and dedication as a mother. Leah also swings wildly in both directions—at times, she comes across as ungrateful for the sacrifices her mother continues to make; at others, it’s easy to see how she’d lash out and hold some resentment towards what she’s had to endure in her short life.
Most importantly, these two come off as authentic: again, it’d be easier to take a more one-dimensional route with this sort of thing, perhaps playing up the schlocky, darkly humorous implications of the situation. MacDonald resists that, though, preferring instead to spin a genuinely tense and heartbreaking tale of a fractured relationship that slowly crumbles, even as Leah tries her best to patch it back up. Pyewacket is certainly playful until it isn’t, at which point it takes a deeply disturbing turn. Granted, MacDonald makes you wait for it by withholding the most overt scares and plot developments for a feverish climax, wherein he reveals the monster in the attic in somewhat unconventional fashion.
By the end, Pyewacket takes on the air of an urban legend, as you could easily imagine it being recounted around a campfire: “did you hear the one about the girl who summoned a demon to kill her mom?” it might begin, drawing a curious audience in before bludgeoning them with a cruel, moralizing twist. MacDonald embellishes the hell out of his rendition, outfitting it with eerie images, cool occult mythology, and irresistible autumn vibes, making it a perfect fit for your rotation this—and any other—October.
Pyewacket arrives on DVD & Blu-ray courtesy of IFC Midnight and Scream Factory on August 7th. Supplements include a trailer and a behind-the-scenes featurette.
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