At the outset of Pyewacket - the latest horror feature from Canadian writer/director Adam MacDonald - we're not entirely sure if Leah (Nicole Muñoz) and her mother (The Mist's Laurie Holden) are going to make it. Leah's father suddenly passed not too long ago, and her mom spends most nights chasing the bottom of a wine bottle before crying herself to sleep. As a result, her daughter finds comfort in a group of black clad punk kids who enjoy reading about the occult and visiting book signings for their favorite author on the black arts, Rowan Dove (James McGowan). Leah wants to be there for her mother, but the woman simply won't let her in, and even antagonizes her girl when she comes home late after staying out with her "loser" pals. This is a relationship on the brink of collapse, where the child is acting more like an adult than her parent.
That's the novel approach MacDonald takes with Pyewacket. Where most movies about grief see their protagonist slipping further and further into some sort of nefarious diversion as a means of pure escapism, Leah is merely trying to take her mind off the shitty home life that's developed in the wake of her dad's demise. She isn't antagonizing her mother, but actually being attacked by the increasingly unstable woman. She's called a "brat" and a "bitch", and her life is even uprooted without consultation or consent, as her mom leases a new home hours away from where they currently live, and tells her daughter she's going to have to transfer schools because a "fresh start" is necessary for them both. But Leah doesn't desire to do anything but keep moving on with her life, letting healing take place little-by-little with the comfort of her peers. Finally, this schism comes to a head and Leah dashes off into the woods surrounding their new house, angrily enacting a black mass ritual that will claim her mom's life.
There's an authentic, natural chemistry that's shared between Muñoz and Holden that allows the audience to buy into the tension that keeps each other at arm's length. Muñoz's soft eyes are always looking upon Holden's mother, as if searching for the woman she once knew. In turn, Holden keeps slipping deeper and deeper into depression, lashing out at her daughter via fits of rage. The way MacDonald and his actors bring these moments to life are live-wire and real, so when Leah finally takes drastic measures, we strangely understand what makes her conjure up the titular malevolent force. Unfortunately, her mother finally softens just as the demon is unleashed, making Leah regret her decision in a "careful what you wish for" sort of way; an understanding of her mom’s misery making the woman seem human again, and undeserving of such an awful fate. Now, it’s a race against time to stop this unseen evil, but it already may be too late for either of them.
Sadly, once MacDonald's movie transitions into being a straight ahead horror picture, it actually loses quite a bit of steam. This is a very low budget affair - despite the crispness of Christian Bielz's cinematography making it look like a million bucks - and the scares are handled in such a subtle fashion that it actually calls attention to the lack of resources on hand. Pyewacket even dips into formulaic territory, as Leah reaches out to her favorite scribe - through FaceTime, causing one to consider when this late second act "exposition dump" trope became the supernatural cinema norm - for advice on how to combat this devilish spirit. It's a pity, as up until this point, MacDonald had constructed a rather astute meditation regarding grief and survivor's guilt, and how both can manifest themselves in many forms. However, while Pyewacket may not be perfect, it's still a promising little feature, proving its writer/director definitely has a distinct genre voice, as long as he learns to polish the more recognizable elements into something unique.
Pyewacket is available now in theaters and on VOD from IFC Midnight.