Written and directed by Adam MacDonald
Part family drama and part supernatural horror, Adam MacDonald’s second feature, Pyewacket, shows what happens when a morbid curiosity with the occult becomes a terrifying pact that can’t be undone. After MacDonald’s last film, Backcountry, based on a true story of a brutal bear attack, warned us not to go into the woods, the director returns to the great outdoors to introduce us to an even greater force of nature: demons. Mixed with a dab of heavy metal teen angst along with a healthy dose of disenfranchised youth, Pyewacket keeps adding ingredients to form a dangerous potion that eventually conjures up an unthinkable evil.
Irrevocably damaged from the death of her father, Leah (Muñoz) finds solace in death metal and spell books as she tries to cope with her grief and deal with her inconsolable mother (Holden), who’s quickly becoming more and more abusive as the lonely nights begin to take their toll. When Mom suddenly uproots them upstate to a remote cabin to get her away from the bad crowd she’s fallen in with, Leah rashly decides to run into the woods to perform an evocation spell in hopes that the Pyewacket witch will do away with her mother. Unfortunately, even after the two make up the next day, it’s too late to put the lid back on and close the portal that Leah has just opened.
Once the inevitability of doom sets in, MacDonald slowly ratchets up the feeling of dread through Leah’s gradual realization that something is lurking just out of frame or crawling around outside in the pitch black night. Of course, she could be letting her imagination get the better of her; but something is telling her (and us) that she may have, in fact, awakened something blackhearted and ancient. Through Leah’s increased paranoia of what’s to come, there’s a palpable sense of evil that MacDonald and Muñoz create through his direction and her increasingly unhinged performance.
The real standout here is Laurie Holden, who changes from a grieving widow to an abusive, calculating mother with such effectiveness that it’s easy to understand why her daughter wants to get her out of the picture. Then, in other more sensitive scenes, she’s loving and affectionate, giving a glimpse of who she was before the tragedy and how much healthier their old relationship used to be. It’s in the third act, however, when Holden is surprisingly frightening in some bone-chilling scenes where she’s more witch than mother.
Speaking of the witch (and yes, you will come face-to-face with one), the cat-like contortions of dancer Bianca Melchior give life to Pyewacket. Her slinky moves and the way MacDonald films her are absolutely inspired by the spirits of J-horror classics like The Grudge but still feel vibrant and fit into this particular story. There’s a subtle build to the final scenes, and the witch never steps out of line with the pace that’s been established already; she’s menacing but never over-the-top.
Whether it’s a tumultuous family relationship or seeing a group of Goth kids trying to cope with high school, there’s a lot to relate to here if you were a troubled kid or just an outsider growing up. What’s most compelling about Pyewacket is how it walks right up to the line of what’s acceptable behavior when dealing with loss and then shows you the worse 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. The last moments of Pyewacket are unapologetically dark; but, then again, a happy ending isn’t very metal, is it?
Pyewacket is out TODAY in select theaters, on VOD, and via Digital platforms in the U.S.
Pyewacket is a heavy metal cautionary tale.