Please don’t read this editorial as an attempt to stoke the fires of horror classification and Oscar-worthy representation. Adam MacDonald’s Pyewacket is, so substantially, a child’s diary that’s shredded to bits during ritualistic sacrifice. Doors that should remain forever boarded are flung open with impulsive negligence, spared not by impunity as pitchfork-scarred figures charge towards the now unblocked opening. Generational unreset and Satan’s deceit lead a cacophonous moral charge, yet even amidst MacDonald’s familial kerfuffle, it takes little sleuthing to proclaim Pyewacket the horror genre’s answer to Greta Gerwig’s Best Picture Nominee Lady Bird.
This is an exercise in theme, tone and tale – plenty more, never less.
It is quite true that both projects differ in climax – one a heart-swelling reunion (Lady Bird), the other a black magic kiss of death (Pyewacket) – but neither narrative dismisses two deeply moving stories about maternal relations. Two intentionally blurry impressions (do you even know how being alive works?), both tremendously rich in their abilities to exploit the unpredictability of emotion and a parent’s eternal love. Each project’s young female protagonist thinks they’re being imprisoned, even mistreated, only to highlight the live-and-learn faults in misunderstanding. We were all kids once, and someday we’ll be parents too (if you choose). Look no further to find equal films that so honestly address both points of view – albeit it in uniquely separate ways.
Nicole Muñoz stars as Pyewacket’s Leah Reyes, your average goth-punk “outcast” who’s obsessed with occult practices. Her mother (played by Laurie Holden) is usually drunk or distraught, a hollow shell of herself ever since the death of Leah’s father. Mrs. Reyes reaches a point where she can no longer endure her current living arrangement so she decides to purchase a woodsy, secluded cabin (without haunting memories). Leah lashes out as any transplanted child would, even though Mrs. Reyes fairly keeps her enrolled in current schooling situations. Nevertheless, Leah turns to her ritualistic hobby and calls for the demon Pyewacket as a form of adolescent overreacting – a deadly curse that must be broken when imbalanced hormones subside in the dumbstruck youth.
Where Lady Bird takes the road more often traveled – a mother and daughter’s symbiotic tug-of-war that’s rooted in sarcastic loveliness – Pyewacket allows for something more malicious. This nightmare scenario where a teenager acts on momentary inhibitions to cause harm unto their parent. It’s that gut-punch family moment where a child screams “I WISH YOU WERE DEAD” from behind cascading tears because he or she isn’t allowed to stay up past 10:00 PM or something just as trivial – but MacDonald *actually* rationalizes such a heartless and empty gesture. This is, destructively, Pyewacket’s grinning premise – except without take-backsies. Extreme to the max, because horror’s most meaningful representations understand and exploit far-reaching depths of our most questionable experiences.
Imagine. Lady Bird is so honest, open and painstakingly enthralled by its flaws, but Pyewacket ups the game with a thick layer of Salem-scented dread. There’s no phone call that erases bitterness once Leah realizes her mother is just trying to do her best in an unspeakable situation. Pyewacket has been summoned from the woods and does not stop advancing – resurrected in anger, acting on ill wishes that can’t be erased. A demon that represents the materialization of dwelled-upon negative thoughts. One girl damned by the stigma of unforgiveness. I might argue that Pyewacket harbors a stronger bond for audiences to detect versus Lady Bird, if only because viewers can sense an *avoidable* (and horrific) end for one, maybe even two lives.
In throwing Laurie Holden and Laurie Metcalf comparisons around (both mamas), yes – it’s acknowledged that Holden portrays a more volatile arc. She’s grief-stricken, typically passing out whilst “enjoying” red wine or saying the wrong thing to her daughter. It’s never intentional, but emotions are so inherently complicated and subject to personal comprehension – something we often forget ourselves (like Leah does). She’s a strong girl who happens to find comfort in pentagram shapes and incantations. Her mother? Smashed to jagged pieces. But here she is trying to piece together a crumbled existence, asking her kin for help. The move isn’t an act of betrayal, it’s permission for understanding (much like how Lady Bird and her mother take everything personally). As (self-obsessed) children, it’s hard to see the big picture.
So important is a reminder that we’re all just sacks of flesh and cerebral neurons that are trying to make sense of infinite existential unknowns. Maturity provides no one an answer key. Metcalf’s decision to abstain from conversation when Saoirse Ronan flies away and Holden’s depleted capacity to “deal” are both neither “wrong” nor “right.” Good decisions? Hardly – but that’s not for you to say. I love this brand of steadfast imperfection because it allows for latter-act breakthroughs where two characters finally channel the same wavelength. Both stories trace these lines so incomparably well, which is an easy inclination of similarity. Pyewacket as vividly wounded as Lady Bird despite horror sadism.
MacDonald makes the most of his film’s satanic roots with heretic details. Leah’s Pyewacket awakening so researched (oil, milk, herbs, blood from her wrist, subject’s hair), her ensuing torments chilled to the bone. This, of course, is the biggest gap between Lady Bird and Pyewacket – Lady never had to fake sleeping while a midnight demon sat *on* her bedroom wall (downright paralyzing sight) – but that’s what gives Leah’s struggle its signature genre stench. There is no fear of pushing boundaries too far as a “wannabe Manson chick” must live with decisions poised to haunt her every waking hour – if they’re proven real (you better believe there’s a sick psychological duality at play).
Of course, Muñoz’s performance is just as important as Holden’s given the situation. How is a child with no worldly experience suppose to take her mother’s exclamation of “Moving on is impossible with your father’s face?” The weight here is heavy, with Muñoz dealt a much uglier hand given Ronan’s intermittent department store banter and more obvious hints of mixed messages. Leah’s HIM posters and Rowan Dove books (an occult writer she admires) are her safety net – an escape from depression. Lady Bird acts out in her own way, but for genre fans, this is a familiar trope – executed so beautifully by both MacDonald and his young starlet. Muñoz sells her angst, paranoia and teenage selfishness like a pro (ditto Ronan). Be careful, this is one of those feely, decadently rich emotional horror flicks some of y’all are afraid of (jk WATCH THIS MOVIE).
Am I using broad strokes to latch Gerwig’s California-hazed coming-of-age dramedy onto a movie about a malevolent spirit set free by a woefully unprepared child? Maybe, but not as blindly as you’d think. Both films run a tremendously relationship-driven undercurrent that evolves with analogous devotion, creepy Pyewacket chase sequence or not. Both proficiently understand parental dynamics (and fears), both highlight egregious Hollywood misconceptions about raising children and love, both connect messy characters through blood and experience – don’t be fooled by monsters in one and Timothée Chalamet in the other. Pyewacket is a brooding rumination on hasty decisions and stewing over perceptions we create ourselves, but also the power in coming-of-age – and the unknowingness that remains in adulthood.
Horror fans, do not skip out on such a genrefied dagger to the heart as Pyewacket – one marvelous movie about our human condition in horrific form. As tragically beautiful as is it cautiously forthcoming. Pure, bare-it-all art laced with the devil’s strongest brew.