With a unique title and unfortunately generic cover art on Apple Movies, I’ve hovered over Pyewacket (2017) a few times over the last couple of weeks. After hearing some positive word of mouth, I decided to give the little Canadian horror film a shot last night. The second directorial feature from Adam MacDonald, Pyewacket had its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and got its streaming release at the tail end of 2017. MacDonald’s previous directorial effort was the underrated Backcountry, so I was optimistic that Pyewacket would deliver some good scares.
Pyewacket tells the story of teenager Leah Reyes who lives alone with her mother following the death of her father. Struggling with the loss, Leah has turned to death metal and the occult while her mother, played by Laurie Holden (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Dumb and Dumber), deals with depression and a growing estrangement from her daughter. To escape the memories in their home, Leah’s mother moves her to an isolated house in the woods, distancing Leah from her life and friends. After an emotional fight, Leah conducts a black magic ritual in the woods and impulsively evokes the spirit of the Pyewacket to kill her mother. Instantly guilt-ridden by her actions, Leah must now find a way to undo the ritual and save her mother and herself.
Similar to the earlier Backcountry, MacDonald crafts a slow-burn thriller that is driven more by character than scares or explicit gore and horror imagery. MacDonald may arguably take a little too much time delivering on the suspense over the film’s first 40 to 50 minutes. One of the challenges in delivering an effective slow-burn of suspense is methodically ratcheting up the tension while making the audience aware of some threat looming in the near future. For much of the first half to three-quarters of the film, not much happens in the way of direct scares. What Pyewacket lacks in frights and action is mitigated by MacDonald’s ability to develop a moody atmosphere that permeates the film over its entire run time. Pyewacket evokes a lingering feeling of dread as you watch, which serves to build anticipation for events that unfold in the climax.
The film is also carried by the strength of its lead performances. Laurie Holden is strong in her role as the emotionally unstable mother who is struggling to connect with her daughter. However, the film leans heavily on Nicole Munoz, playing Leah, and fortunately Munoz is outstanding. She fully inhabits the role of Leah, elevating what could have been a stereotyped depiction of the ‘dressed all in black’ social misfit teenager into a fully realized person. Munoz displays a full range of emotions and keeps the audience engaged in her character arc during the film’s slower moments.
Pyewacket’s overall impact ultimately hinges on its climax, which is unfortunately a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the film’s twists that build towards the end feel like they have been lifted from other films; there is a bit of a feeling of familiarity and the conclusion is somewhat telegraphed. Additionally, some viewers may feel like too much of the action and payoff was held off until the film’s closing moments. MacDonald though knows how to set up his scares and one violent act in particular is filmed with such a punctuating shock that it still carries its full impact even if you anticipated it happening.
As a patient film fan, I found Pyewacket offered just enough to make it well worth watching. It’s certainly a more slowly paced film that does not necessarily add anything original or take any risks with its material, but I appreciated MacDonald’s commitment to delivering a thriller driven by character and mood. Munoz’s performance was clearly a stand out aspect of Pyewacket and it will be interesting to see what films she’ll choose next.