The uniquely titled Pyewacket marks the he second directorial feature from Adam MacDonald. A Canadian independent thriller, Pyewacket debuted 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. Meanwhile, her mother struggles with depression. 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 a fight, Leah performs a black magic ritual in the woods. During the ritual, she evokes the spirit of the Pyewacket to kill her mother. Instantly guilt-ridden, Leah must find a way to undo the ritual and save her mother and herself.
Pyewacket Emphasizes Atmosphere over Jump Scares
Similar to Backcountry, MacDonald crafts a slow-burn thriller driven by characters more than scares or gore. To some extent, MacDonald takes a little too much time delivering on the suspense. The movie’s first 40 to 50 minutes veer a little on the slow side. One of the challenges of the slow-burn approach it the delicate act of ratcheting up tension. In this regard, MacDonald isn’t always successful at reminding the audience of the looming threat.
Pyewacket evokes a lingering feeling of dread as you watch, which serves to build anticipation for events that unfold in the climax.
For much of the first half to three-quarters of the film, not much happens in the way of direct scares. But what Pyewacket lacks in frights and action, it makes up for with a moody atmopshere. MacDonald drapes the film with an unsettle vibe. Pyewacket evokes a lingering feeling of dread as you watch, which serves to build anticipation for events that unfold in the climax.
Munoz Bewitches With Her Perfomance
Arguably, Pyewacket’s cast and their performances carry the movie. Laurie Holden excels as the emotionally unstable mother struggling to connect with her daughter. However, Pyewacket leans heavily on Nicole Munoz’s performance as Leah. Munoz is outstanding as she fully inhabits the role of Leah. We could have ended up with a stereotyped depiction of the ‘dressed all in black’ social misfit teenager. Instead, Munoz turns Leah into a fully realized person. It’s Munoz’s performance that keeps the audience engaged during the movie’s slower moments.
Climax Delivers a Mixed Bag
Pyewacket’s overall impact ultimately hinges on its climax, which is unfortunately a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the MacDonald’s twists feel like they’ve been lifted from other films. At times, Pyewacket can’t help but feel familiar. MacDonal also telegraphs his own conclusion. Additionally, much of the action and payoff was held off until the movie’s final moments. Fortunately, MacDonald knows how to stage his scares. In particular, one violent act is captured with such a punctuating shock that it still carries its full impact even if you did see it coming.
Worthwhile for the Patient Horror Fan
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.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B