Synopsis – A frustrated, angst-ridden teenage girl awakens something in the woods when she naively performs an occult ritual to evoke a witch to kill her mother.
My Take – As studios are coming up with newer ways to frighten the audience, with their jump scares and screamathons, a little sub-genre of horror known as psychological horror, where filmmakers don’t actually have the goods to back up their approach, and often seem to add in content just to pad out the minutes to qualify as a future film, are slowly finding a place for themselves in this growing industry, that too without the use of blood or any form of gore.
While most people may find such kind of films boring and dragged out because the full story comes out at the end, this film is a good example of how a film when done right can be used to successfully build suspense and tension throughout along with a cast and script that are good enough to hold your attention until the end. Much like Raw and The Witch, this film from long-time actor turned director Adam MacDonald is very much a slow and steady burn that relies on cerebral engagement to get the full effect.
Sure, the idea of teen angst being a center piece of the plot can seem like a severe turn off, but the absolute realism and dramatic conflict (external and internal) that director Macdonald drives here might end up changing your perspective, as he drags out the tension with a tone that is both sinister and pitch black, all leading up to an epic climax. Described more as a cautionary tale of the dangers of impulsive feelings, the failure of familial communication and the isolating and fractious nature of grief, this film with its shrouded mystery and eerie suspense is a memorable entry into the genre, that is certainly not the disposable watch its teen-goth-wiccan premise or marketing might suggest.
The story follows Leah Reyes (Nicole Muñoz), a teenage girl who is still grieving the loss of her father. Following his death, Leah in an effort to feel connected has divulged herself into the study of occultism and spends her leisure time with her high school friends like Aaron (Eric Osborne) and her friends Janice (Chloe Rose) and Rob (Romeo Carere), who share the similar interest. Another reason for her increasing interest is due to the torrid atmosphere at her home were her grieving mother (Laurie Holden) usually ends up unleashing her load on Leah and in an effort to move on decides to sell their family home and shift to a house down in the woods, so they both get an equal chance to restart their lives.
Leah who is now understandably very upset by her mother’s seemingly selfish and impulsive decision to uproot Leah from her life and take her away from her friends decides to put together a sort of a ritual from one of her books and hopes that Pyewacket, an evil spirit of a witch, will appear and kill her own mother. However, when their relationship begins to improve, Leah immediately regrets, but it may be too late as strange things start happening in the house. From this pivotal moment on, the scares encroach slowly, dread building because of what isn’t yet happening, but is unmistakably on route. Hints of the witch, whether visual or aural, are sparingly placed in the film’s darkened corners, running parallel to Leah’s own increasing guilt and regret.
The appeal of the film rides in the simplicity of its premise, which could have been ruined with cheap jump-scares and tons of gore, yet director MacDonald holds back and works almost exclusively in the realm of suspense and tension, with a heavy dose of malaise, and no small amount of desperate sadness. Sure, it lacks the finesse of similar films, yet retains a raw thematic and narrative simplicity that the others forego. Part family drama and part supernatural horror, the film shows what happens when a morbid curiosity with the occult becomes a terrifying pact that can’t be undone, and when mixed with a dab of heavy metal teen angst along with a healthy dose of disenfranchised youth, the film keeps adding ingredients to form a dangerous potion that eventually conjures up an unthinkable evil.
While the first half of this 90 minute film is more of an understated drama about a mother and daughter locked in grief with neither appreciating how badly the other is suffering and how little they are helping, the second half divulges into Leah’s hatred. Where most films about grief see their protagonist slipping further and further into some sort of nefarious diversion as a means of pure escapism, Leah is merely trying to take her mind off the shitty home life that’s developed in the wake of her dad’s demise.
What’s most compelling about the film is how it walks right up to the line of what’s acceptable behavior when dealing with loss and then shows you the worst case scenario of what can happen when you step way over that line. It’s better to keep putting patches on your battle jacket instead of thinking you can pick a fight with something you can never defeat. Here, director MacDonald encapsulates the teenage experience in a very real way and, despite the genre setting, offers a fairly honest portrayal of some mother-daughter dynamics.
They can’t all be sunshine and light, and some viewers will find that this resonates with them more than the likes of a film like Lady Bird. While the film takes a while to get its wheels churning, but this is all very important time spent in the film because it is giving us a chance to care about these characters and their fate. Then the film just starts slowly revving things up piece by piece until finally the finale kicks in, and it’s one to remember I promise you that. For horror fans who have been screaming to put a halt to the ridiculous jump scares, this one instead relies on its eerie atmosphere to deliver scares and sometimes it makes you feel uneasy.
Using a lot of tight close-ups to trap the viewer and really build up the tension along with wide angle shots of the creepy forest, which end up giving you goosebumps, the film ends up avoiding conventional methods and plays with expectations throughout. Yes, the film have some jump scares, but most of the time they are not false jump scares. A scene really started creeping me out but it turned out to be a stupid prank by Leah’s friend, Janice. There is also a scene that was shot so simply that any man and his dog could go out into the woods right now and do the exact same thing, and yet it was probably the most effective scene in the entire film. Seriously, simplicity can so often be used as a greatest asset.
Nevertheless, if there is something which stood out as a negative aspect would be the mishandling of the friends angle and how they were left out in the end from the true horror, which I believe a missed opportunity to address more complexity in the described relationships, with jealousy being one of the most powerful source of anger. The same goes for the character of the fictional author Rowan Dove (James McGowan), who adds nothing to the story. Yet for such kind of film to work, the film leans on the performances from the leads and without wonderful performances from both Nicole Muñoz and Laurie Holden, it wouldn’t have been possible. There’s an authentic, natural chemistry that’s shared between the two that allows the audience to buy into the tension that keeps each other at arm’s length. Unlike most horror films, we actually care about their characters. In supporting roles, Chloe Rose, Eric Osborne and Romeo Carere are also good. On the whole, ‘Pyewacket‘ is an effective, scary and relatively well-crafted low-budget horror film with a memorable climax.
Directed – Adam MacDonald
Rated – NR
Run Time – 90 minutes