Adam MacDonald seems to work in twos. Pyewacket, derived from the name of a 17th century witch, marks the Canadian directors second feature film after 2014’s grizzly Backcountry, which coincidentally features a tense relationship between a backpacking couple that’s intruded upon with dire results. His latest horror film – which he also wrote – focuses on an equally tense relationship in the wake of a close tragedy, which is manipulated after an angst driven ritual calls forth an ancient evil. It’s a chilling occult horror that marks two for two in a short career that began with acting, which can sum up his genuine relationship with the characters he writes, all who feel cut from real places of turmoil.
There’s Leah (Nicole Munox), a relatively reserved teenager whose interest in the dark arts comes about after the death of her father. Her mother (Laurie Holden) feels unable to remove herself from the tragedy that’s befallen them, and decides to move into a quaint cabin in the woods, a place the genre is all too familiar with. This further creates friction between the two, as Leah’s solace comes from her friendships with Janice (Chloe Rose) and crush Aaron (Eric Osborne), who timidly shares similar feelings. After an argument comes to a boil, Leah performs a ritual in the woods outside her new home, summoning forth a witch to kill her mother.
It’s an impulsive act that is immediately regretted, which is part of what makes Pyewacket such a brooding horror film. The characters are impeccably flawed, each with their own diverging and converging paths filled with regret and pain. Leah and her mother’s grief each take their own form, allowing the conflict between the two to feel carved from separate trees within the same forest. One falls into black magic, a dark hobby if you will, that she shares with her friends, all who read the works of James McGowan (Rowan Dove), a fiction writer dabbling in the occult. The other her work, clicking away on her laptop in between parental obligations, all the while searching for a weekend job she refers to as a “hobby”.
While Leah successfully escapes into a world of friendly faces, her mother seems trapped, unable to remove herself from seeing her late-husbands face in her daughter, a sentiment she spits at her with a sort of torn love. It’s a genuine reaction that layers family drama with increasing horror as the films characters act impulsively, all which spill forth like an ancient evil. Her mother’s move comes with an immediateness that feels jarring and displacing, even if we’ve only known the Reyes’ for 15 minutes.
That’s because MacDonald dismisses heavy exposition for heavy silence, bearing itself the same way the many trails do in Backcountry. When Leah and Aaron sit together in a car, their awkward, bashful silence leads us down a path to understanding not just who these characters are beneath the black metal patches and torn jean jackets, but where they’re coming from. These are butterfly filled moments of discovery, etched in that powerful feelings that churn our insides while filling us with a deep comprehension of the many confusing yet exciting aspects of young adulthood.
MacDonald plays off this silent ease to create uncompromising and chilling horror that cuts deep, even when it isn’t necessarily relishing it. His ability to shape terror comes through in the silence that once radiated from two people inside a warm car, a silence that now lays exposed outside in the woods beside a ritualistic scene of blood, yarn and hair, all items that connect Leah’s mother with the titular witch.
Except what makes Pyewacket so much more sinister is its vested interest in the relationship between mother and daughter over the occult. Even the ritual itself is void of black candles, Ouija boards and pentagrams – save the ring Leah wears that baffles her mother – instead comprised of the very things that bind (yarn, hair, blood) two separate people.
Laurie Holden fills every role – be it film (The Mist [’07]) or television (The Americans) – with a deeply felt understanding of the very thing that makes human beings so complex, and as a grieving widow, gives a performance that nurtures the duality of what it means to lose a husband and a father figure for a daughter. There’s a resonating voice to her that accompanies her daughters silence, which plays out amidst the low hum of guitars, an effect used to a similar fashion in last years The Devils Candy.
And while Holden encompasses the dual role of Leah’s mother – a spine-chilling angle that has a pivotal place in the film’s climax – it’s Nicole Munoz who disrupts the silence with emotive elasticity. She reacts to much of her surroundings with a curiosity that leans towards catharsis, slowly tightening her irrational fears as we get closer to understanding what exactly the Pyewacket is. Munoz embodies the brooding rage of a teenager the way a director fashions horror, filling each scene with bristling silence that reveals what makes the genre such a deeply felt one.
What starts out as bumps in the night slowly builds to a reveal that feels inescapable, as if we are bound to our beds, unable to awake from the creeping dread of something evil. It’s a kind of possession that labors in the emptiness of its scenes, which play out without much of a fuss. Leah stirs awake at night, unable to shake the creeping feeling of her act, causing sleepless nights that shape our understanding of the fear summoned forth. Every instance of tension unreleased adds another notch of fear to the belt that continues to tighten around our throats. It’s a fear that’s crafted around what we know, that something or someone has been summoned, harnessing a suspense that would make Hitchcock grunt a throaty approval.
Rather than go big, embracing jump scares in between languished dread, MacDonald works at filling empty rooms – we go from poster addled walls to blank canvases – working with negative space the way John Carpenter’s Halloween [’78] creates a background of unbridled terror from nothing. The less we know of what lurks in the woods, moving closer and closer to Leah’s doorstep, the more we understand what horror feels like, not caring about what it might look like. It’s an aspect of Pyewacket that, like its silence, slow burns its way into the lives of two people we care about, ultimately making the genre all the more effective. In the end, the real terror comes not from a witch, but from the impulsive behavior between a mother and daughter, who feel genuinely lost amidst the horrors of real life.
Add Pyewacket to your horror collection today!