Pyewacket: One of the Year's Best

Grief is a powerful emotion. It can make people act out. Change character. Lash out at their loved ones. Grief can consume a person entirely and make them say things that they don't mean. If there's anything that Hereditary taught me, it's that there are some things that can't be unsaid. And Pyewacket just reinforces it.

Facts are Facts

Writer: Adam MacDonald
Director: Adam MacDonald
Gayly: fantastic script, acting and tension
Dreadful: the feeling of watching a car accident, unable to stop it
Pair With: Hereditary
Availability: VOD, Blu Ray

Pyewacket tells the story of a teenager named Leah (Nicole Muñoz) and her mother Mrs. Reyes (Laurie Holden). At some recent point prior to the movie, Leah lost her father. That loss has obviously affected the two remaining family members and they deal with it in different ways. Mrs. Reyes is deeply depressed and self-medicates with wine, crying nonstop.  Leah has turned to the occult, with the help of her goth friends and psuedo boyfriend. I'm not sure if this is intentional or not, but Leah's backpack has a heartagram patch, which is the symbol of the band H.I.M. I'm sure the fans of the band will disagree with me, but that symbol brings to mind a kind of hipster goth, if that's even possible. It's a kind of cutesy, defanged version of a pentagram. They may read the books and play at it, but I don't believe they deep down believe it.

Deep in grief and in the middle of an incredibly intense fight, Mrs. Reyes says the most horrible thing a parent could say to their child. The intensity of the scene reminded me of a specific scene in Hereditary, and the results are simultaneously shocking and painful. Leah runs into the woods, screams in pain and frustration and then decides to perform one of the rituals in her book to summon a familiar named Pyewacket to kill her mother. Much like her mother, Leah immediately regrets her actions. But little things start to happen. Leah can't sleep in the dark. The door to the house is open, dirt dragged inward. A greeting card takes on a foreboding tone by exclaiming, "Be careful what you wish for, someone might be listening."

Pyewacket was available to watch earlier this year, but I have to admit I kept putting it off until it wasn't available anymore. The premise behind it felt a bit trite. It felt a little too overdramatic and unbelievable: a teenager summons a demon to kill her mother because she's angry. And while that is a very succinct explanation of the plot, it doesn't really do it justice. I wish I had watched it earlier because it would have easily been on my Favorite Horror of 2018 (so far) list.

These two individuals are broken. Writer/Director Adam MacDonald excels at establishing their grief and the distance between them from the very beginning. Laurie Holden, in particular, shines as the conflicted mother. Hurting and trying to make ends meet, she lashes out in grief and then tries to make up for it the next day by making pancakes. And Leah, fueled by rebellious teenage hormones and intense pain, fights back the only way she knows how. The Ritual itself was incredibly designed. It shows instead of tells and expects its audience to follow suit. 

The more I think about Leah, the more real she became. I was never a goth kid, but as a horror nerd whose dad used to collect a wide variety of books, including in the occult, I could see myself in her. Watching her perform the ritual brought me back to my teenage years when I did stumble upon a book of rituals my dad had. I would show it to friends and we'd read it under a flashlight.

One time we did try one of the rituals. We lit some candles and attempted to follow what was written. (Un)Fortunately, we couldn't get our hands on the right esoteric ingredients. Today, I can't remember what silliness we were trying to conjure but I still maintain that the candles flickered a number of times in our basement. So I can understand how an angry and isolated teenage girl could lash out in anger by trying a ritual, while simultaneously thinking nothing of it. 

Adam MacDonald directed the surprisingly effective Backcountry and brings his naturalistic style to Pyewacket. As in that previous movie, he grounds the terror and horror in characters. The story takes a bit to unspool, as he focuses intensely on the mother and daughter and their dynamics. Backcountry worked for me because the characters were well-realized; so, too, does Pyewacket spend time deepening our investment in the Mother and daughter.  Even when the third act starts to become predictable and I realized where the story was ultimately heading, the characters and the acting made it no-less affecting and effective.

It's amazing to me that we've been given two wonderful familial dramas that are also terrific horror stories in one year. The fact that they have similar qualities, if different ways of invoking it is also quite the coincidence. In some ways, Pyewacket and Hereditary feel like siblings. But while Hereditary stunned with camera trickery and a central mystery that twisted its way into your mind, it had a cool and distanced approach. Pyewacket attacks with a more naturalistic and immediate story and felt more grounded in reality. I'm not sure which one is better, but at this point, I don't think it matters.

Watch this movie.