Horror films take another trip to the woods, this time in Canada courtesy of Adam MacDonald’s Pyewacket. Leah and her mother have recently lost her father, and they move to a house in the middle of a local forest to make a fresh start. Their relationship has deteriorated since Leah’s father’s death, and the occult-obsessed teenager becomes angry enough to perform a black magic ritual to summon the demon Pyewacket to kill her mother.
Has performing black magic rituals ever gone well in a horror film? Well, Pyewacket is not that film.
The main strength of Pyewacket is the characterisation. Though Leah and her mother make mistakes throughout the story that look obvious to us, we can understand why they make them. Leah’s mother, cocooned in her own grief, doesn’t realise that if she shuts her daughter out, her daughter won’t be there for her any more. The first time Leah hears anything about moving, it’s only after the new house has already been bought, implying that she has no influence over her own life. During an argument, her mother blames Leah for all her mother’s problems – a blatantly unfair and jaw-dropping accusation towards a teenager who isn’t even that badly-behaved.
We’re told that Leah started her interest in the occult after her father’s death, and it’s easy to speculate why. If you can perform rituals to give yourself better luck, or to get rid of your enemies, it means that you have control over fate. We’re not told why Leah’s father died, but it doesn’t really matter; what matters is that something world-shattering happened to her and there was nothing she could have done to stop it. Her struggle for control and autonomy is also constantly emphasised by the cars we follow throughout the film. She is dependent on friends’ cars to get to school, and when she moves into the forest she can’t leave without someone else taking her. She wants to get a car, and blames her mother for preventing her. On the other hand, we can’t take her word for this; Leah thinks she can manage on her own more than she actually can, and this is her major weakness.
If you seriously believe in the supernatural, you should think twice about summoning a demon to kill your mother. Even if everything goes fine, the result is, well, a dead mother. We’re left uncertain how much Leah really wanted to kill her mother at that moment, and how much of it was just letting off steam; one of Leah’s friends is repulsed when she tells him what she’s done. Nevertheless, we can understand why Leah didn’t stop to think. After a particularly horrible argument with her mother, being called a failure, and trapped in a house she never wanted to move to, it’s the only thing she feels she can do to control the situation. The ritual is an emotional outburst, and unfortunately Leah can’t think rationally when she’s emotional. This will not be the only time when this happens.
The film concentrates on unease rather than gore or special effects. I’m a fan of this approach myself, and Pyewacket does it well because the threats come across as real. Pyewacket doesn’t just go ‘boo’ occasionally; at one point it transports Leah’s sleeping body from her bed to the middle of the woods without waking her up. Not only has it been inside her bedroom, but it has just proven that it can do whatever it likes to her without her knowing. Perhaps the best aspect of the plot is this: Pyewacket may have been summoned to kill her mother, but its real victim is Leah.
The film does make missteps, and though most are minor, they have the cumulative effect of taking the audience out of the action sometimes. The biggest problem is the pacing at the beginning of the film. Whilst the story proceeds at a good tempo once Leah has performed the ritual, it takes a lot of time to get to that point, and the first act of the film is not as compelling as the rest of it. The decision to shoot the film with handheld cameras can be distracting at moments of tension, and the cinematography employs a washed-out look for its colours that feels over-familiar in 2018. I was also left strangely frustrated with the climax because of a single five-second moment that made the rest of it less suspenseful that it could have been; it telegraphs the ending for viewers who know their horror films.
That said, the strengths of the film are enough to carry it. Aside from the characterisation, Nicole Muñoz and Laurie Holden play daughter and mother convincingly, which is essential given that so much of the film rests on the shoulders of the two characters. Pyewacket is not ground-breaking, but if you’re a horror fan, it’s certainly worth your time.