This is one of those instances where critics are generally fond of a movie, but it’s the audience that requires a little convincing to watch Pyewacket.
We wish for a lot of things at times, and usually, those wishes during difficult times may be quite undesirable. Wishing your mother dead is a fine example. Following the death of her father, the teenage Leah (Nicole Muñoz) is forced to relocate to a desolate home in the woods because her mother (Laurie Holden) urgently seeks a fresh start. Holden’s Mrs. Reyes is quite indifferent to her daughter’s plight in the beginning. Having to move away from her comfortable neighborhood and cozy group of Gothic friends is telling on her, but her mom wouldn’t have any of it.
It all culminates in an angry outburst where Mrs. Reyes vents her emotions, sick of seeing her dead husband every time she sees Leah. Rough stuff. This galvanizes Leah into action, coming in the form of an occult spell buried in one of her many eerie books. Partly serious, partly coping mechanism, she feels better after completing a ritual in the woods, requesting an evil spirit to inflict harm on her mother. But when ominous events occur and suggest a supernatural presence willing to actually fulfill her favor, Leah begins to regret her actions.
Pyewacket, as many independent films go, builds and moves at a snail’s pace, taking its time to reveal characters with lengthy sequences of actions and dialogue. A walk along the streets. A night out with friends. A ritual in the woods. All these instances are constructed slowly and methodically like a craftsman (or woman) working on a sculpture.
Initially, this slow-cooking nature is highly suitable to create ambivalence around Leah’s mother and how we feel about her. Enough needs to be said and done for Leah to justify performing a ritual. Mrs. Reyes’ nonchalant attitude to Leah’s life and her critical diatribe accommodate this. But at the same time, for Leah to regret the ritual, there has to be a course correction. Laurie Holden does this brilliantly by offering several olive branches. Driving more than two hours so her daughter could go to her old high school. Revealing warm stories about Leah’s father. Even the little things like pancakes for breakfast. She tries it all.
Putting sufficient guilt into Leah’s mind and then adding remorse on top of it, we get the inevitable foreboding on her part and a willingness to make things right. At whatever cost. The guilt, remorse, and foreboding combine to cook a lethal potion that provides a highly shocking and powerful ending. The deliberately sedate pace in the first and second acts is what enables this, laying out all the pieces before combining them for a tense final act.
Horror of Human Action
Pyewacket doesn’t rely solely on a visibly feral and demonic monster to deliver scares. In fact, the monster is hardly there to be found at times. Most of the horror is designed through suspense. Leaves rustling, knocks on the ceiling, and visions on the periphery. The hokey jump scare has been eliminated in this film, and rightly so.
The primary horror of this story is our own actions. The entire premise of the film is centered on a teenage daughter willing to kill her own mother. That itself is a terrifying proposition, and with a little push from an evil spirit, who’s to say such a deed won’t be done? That’s what the film tries to answer. Will Leah’s mistake of a ritual actually work? Can she rewind or undo her actions?
Pyewacket is a sobering experience. With the film taking place in what could be the Fall, the picture is drenched of any color, with the sun hanging low and the clouds high. A mother and daughter isolated in the woods, contending with their animosity while trying to repair and mend their broken relationship. It’ll take its time to get going, but when it does, your stomach will be wrenched and twisted into a thousand knots.
If you love horror movies, feel free to check out these other reviews.