Adam MacDonald's new, intensely intimate film stars Nicole Munoz and Laurie Holden as a daughter and mother with ... issues. And a demon.
Long-time actor Adam MacDonald has already made exciting waves as a filmmaker with just two features under his belt. 2014's Backcountry was a masterfully suspenseful woods thriller, wherein he employed a restraint that served to punctuate the film's moments of visceral terror. For his new picture, Pyewacket, he puts those same tools to work in a decidedly more supernatural vein of horror.
Protagonist Leah (Nicole Munoz) and her mother (The Walking Dead's Laurie Holden) are coping with the loss of their father and husband, both in ill-conceived ways. While her mother turns icy and pores over old photographs while downing endless glasses of red wine, Leah throws herself into a fixation on the dark arts and the occult.
Despite how dramatic that sounds, Leah's interest in the subject seems to be a fairly harmless way for her to bond with her circle of friends at school, and distract herself from the banal reality of her grieving household. So, when her mother abruptly announces that she's moving them to a rustic little house in the forest -- too far to continue commuting to her current school -- Leah understandably feels unmoored, helpless, and ignored.
Once mother and daughter relocate, the tension that was already festering between them blows up into a nasty argument. In the moment, Leah's mother says some deeply hurtful things, sending the girl into a fit of that wounded, hormonal rage that only teenagers can summon up. Leah decides to invoke a demon, the titular Pyewacket, to take her mom out of the picture for good. While she follows the ritual steps with a methodical determination, one has to wonder how much she honestly expects the spell to be successful, and how much she truly subscribes to the existence of demons and devils. But, this is a horror movie, so we the audience know: it's definitely going to work.
From this pivotal moment on, the scares encroach slowly, dread building because of what isn't yet happening, but is unmistakably en route. Hints of the demon -- whether they be visual, aural, or even off-screen suggestions -- are sparingly placed in the film's darkened corners, running parallel to Leah's own increasing guilt and regret. MacDonald works almost exclusively in the realm of suspense and tension, with a heavy dose of malaise, and no small amount of desperate sadness.
Those looking for big, noisy scares or lavish gore need not apply. I found myself wanting more details regarding the demon Pyewacket, an intriguing malevolent force. We don't learn much about it, beyond seeing the book in which Leah found out about it and hearing a few cautionary words from an occult specialist. Ultimately, this choice makes narrative sense, as Leah herself hardly knows anything about it, having conjured it without thought or consideration of the consequences.
Like Backcountry, Pyewacket is an intensely intimate film, largely shaped by themes of isolation and disconnect. The cast is small, mostly focused on just the mother and daughter, and in this case the isolation is expressed not only through the cabin's woodsy location, but also in the emotional distance between the characters.
Pyewacket is a memorable entry into the genre of dark, disturbing horror (à la recent gems Kill List or The Witch) that is certainly not the fun, disposable watch its teen-goth-wiccan premise might suggest. With it, MacDonald solidifies his status as a talented horror director with a knack for choosing interesting material that suits his sensibilities (and abilities). The genre could use more filmmakers like him.
IFC Midnight will open the film in select theaters, on VOD and via digital platforms in the U.S. on Friday, March 23, 2018.