Yeah, so that title. I can’t stand it, and I think it will put people off from giving the movie a fair shot. Look, even I find it off-putting, and I know what it means! But the vast majority of people who see the title won’t. It’ll just be a funny title that sounds like it could be some kind of slapstick comedy involving people getting hit in the face with custard pies and getting whacked on the behind with a paddle. But of course, I’m British and grew up with these kind of vaudevillian shenanigans on the Beeb, so there you go.
Facetiousness aside, the title is actually the name of a witch’s familiar from the old days of the Salem Witch Trials, and in the movie it’s used to call forth into being a supernatural entity to do the bidding of a moody teenager, Leah (played incredibly well by Nicole Munoz). If I stopped there and said no more you’d get as bad an idea of the movie as the title, but in all honesty this is the best horror movie I’ve seen this year by a long stretch.
If you’ve seen The Witch and enjoyed it (as I did), I can almost guarantee that you’ll get a lot of satisfaction out of this. While it’s as connected to the goings on in Salem as The Witch, Pyewacket is a contemporary story, taking place in what looks like rural New England (it was filmed in Canada), but as well as that connective, thematic tissue, it also shares a distinctly creepy atmosphere and cloying sense of foreboding. It also resonates with me because of two well-defined themes in regard to the specific nature of witchcraft and occult magic, and to the broad definition of horror as a whole. I won’t expound on these pet themes of mine here, but I see horror at its most successful when it deals with the inexorable doom of an innocent. In movies like Candyman this is most evident. No matter what the protagonist does, their situation winds tighter and tighter around them until death, or something equally bad, is the inevitable fate. It’s a deeply personal throughline, unlike lesser movies that only serve up one pointless death after another. And I’m extremely particular about black magic being a false salvation, with the high personal cost it requires from the user. Pyewacket succeeds thanks to a largely terrific script by writer/director Adam MacDonald that’s heavy on character and ambiguity, but which also contains a couple of well done set pieces that come at exactly the right times in the narrative, creating a supremely balanced horror movie. I didn’t expect to be thrilled by this, but that’s exactly what happened after the closing scene.
Like A Dark Song, Pyewacket is the story of harnessing the power of the occult via ritual magic, with the ultimate goal of lashing out at others. In Pyewacket, the ritual is authentic-seeming enough to appease me, and I’m a harsh critic of how the occult is generally depicted in horror movies. What I really liked about the movie is the impact just performing the ritual has on Leah. Dabbling in the occult is not for the faint of heart, and the regret Leah feels is palpable and almost instantaneous. I loved this aspect of the movie, and Munoz delivers in a praise-worthy performance. So too does Laurie Holden, recognizable from The Mist, Silent Hill, and The Walking Dead. Here, she is convincing as a recent widow struggling to maintain the relationship she has with her daughter, who is also trying to come to terms of her own grief over the loss of her father. It’s never explained what happened to him, but it’s not necessary. MacDonald’s script is pointedly focused on the gulf that grief has pushed between them, allowing for the occult to slink into that growing gap.
This is truly a small movie, but low-budget doesn’t imply low quality moviemaking. Christian Bielz’s photography is terrific and moody, as is the musical score by Lee Malia, but the real star of the show is Adam MacDonald, whom I’d never heard of before. This movie is the work of a real craftsman, and everything just seems to come together perfectly – I hope he doesn’t peak with this movie, but it’s hard to see him topping it any time soon. The movie is produced by Jonathan Bronfman and Andrew Bronfman, who are also among the producers of both The Witch and another good little horror movie, The Void
I can’t say enough good things about the other cast members who round out the production. Leah’s high school circle of friends are believably written, but also played well by Eric Osborne (Aaron), Romeo Carere (Rob), and especially Chloe Rose who, as Janice, is key in two of the movie’s most effective scenes.
At one point, I thought the movie could go off the rails if a minor character’s role in the movie became more important in act three, but MacDonald keeps it to a minimum – though having said that, I found this character’s two brief appearances in the movie to be mostly irrelevant to the narrative, as Leah is such a strongly written – and motivated – character she could easily have not needed the advice this character imparts.
I started off the review complaining about the title, but I’m going to tell you to ignore it. It’ll never grow on you – like I said, it didn’t grow on me even though I was familiar (heh) with the meaning – but it doesn’t need to. Here, black magic is used to tell a story about the crippling effects of grief on the individual and the family, and how it can lead to destruction without the conscious effort to move on. It’s a beautifully told horror movie, with much higher production values than lesser moviemakers could squeeze out of this budget. The bottom line is, if you’re like me and include The Blair Witch Project and The Witch in your list of favourite horror movies, I can virtually guarantee that you’ll like Pyewacket.
©Andrew Hope, 2018