Pyewacket – Review
A frustrated, angst-ridden teenage girl awakens something in the woods when she naively performs an occult ritual to evoke a witch to kill her mother.
We are back with another movie in our Fall Themed Horror feature. Today we are taking a look at Canadian horror movie Pyewacket. Do you want to spend nearly an hour and a half with an angsty teenage girl who listens to deathcore and hates her mum? Stupid question, of course you do. You are in luck as that is exactly what Pyewacket is about.
I, personally, am a little excited as this is unequivocally a fall themed horror movie. There are fallen leaves everywhere, the occasional pumpkin, and a distinctly mid autumn feel. I am, at the very least, grateful for that after the slightly ambiguous setting of ParaNorman and Super Dark Times. Featuring themes of grief, isolation, and the occult, Pyewacket has an independent horror movie feel with a fairly heavy drama leaning. Is it any good? We’ll take a look. As always, I will give a quick spoiler free breakdown of the movie which you can skip if you like.
November is Fall themed Horror month. We will be reviewing a few movies every week that feature an autumn setting. The criteria is pretty broad here as the fall setting is rarely pivotal to the plot of a movie. It’s more of a coincidence than anything. Fallen leaves and orange hues are a must, however. When Fall Themed Horror month is over, we move onto December and Awful Advent. 25 days of Christmas themed horror reviews leading up to the big day. Definitely keep an eye out for that.
Pyewaket – Synopsis
Directed by Adam MacDonald, Pyewacket starts with teenage girl Leah, played by Nicole Muñoz, sitting in school looking distracted. Her friend Janice, played by Chloe Rose, is outside of her classroom door pulling faces. Leaving school later that day, Leah is picked up by her mother. We learn that Leah’s father recently passed away. Leah has, apparently, been struggling. She has developed an obsession with the occult, dresses in an alternative manner, and listens to heavy music.
Leah has arranged to go to a book signing with her friends. The author is a well known occult expert and the group enjoy his work. When the signing is done, Leah decides to spend time with her friends as they smoke drugs and drink. Heading back home driven by her friend Aaron, played by Eric Osbourne, the pair share an awkward moment of teenage hormonal tension, much to the dismay of the viewer. Word of caution, there will be a number of moments like this throughout so look forward to that.
A Rash Decision – Synopsis Cont.
Due to hanging out with her friends after the book signing, Leah has arrived home late. Her mum is, apparently, an angry drunk and chastises Leah. She tells her they are moving to a rural house two hours away from the town they are in now. Leah throws a tantrum but her mum isn’t deterred. The pair move out to the new house and Leah’s mum agrees to drive her to school every day so she can maintain her friendships.
After the move, on the way home from school, Leah and her mum have an argument. Leah’s mum tells her she is sick of her obsessions with the occult. She says she is becoming a loser like her friends. Leah screams at her mum, in response her mum says she can’t forget her late husband due to how much Leah looks like him. Horrified at what she said, Leah wishes her mother was dead. Leah, in a somewhat histrionic display of poor judgement, decides to head out to the woods to summon a demon. A decision she will come to regret.
Slow Paced Psychological Horror
Pyewacket is something of a psychological horror. Very slow paced, it isn’t trying to scare you with jump scares or creepy visuals. It is primarily concerned with building a story and making the viewer invest in it. At this, it is quite successful. You do become invested and do want to know what will happen next. Focusing on the fractured relationship between a young girl and her mother, writer and director Adam MacDonald attempts to explore the subject of grief through the lens of a horror movie. This is always something of a tough task.
Grief is a difficult topic and the horror genre does not always lend itself too well to a mature interpretation. Movies such as Hereditary do a decent job of exploring the issue while keeping the horror at the centre of the plot. It is a tough balancing act, however, but I think Pyewacket does a pretty good job. What this is, at its heart, is a coming of age horror movie with a strong drama leaning. Light on scares, Pyewacket ventures into the realm of metaphors and allegory as it explores Leah’s efforts to cope with her loss.
There is a strong focus here on making the viewer relate to Leah’s grief. Leah’s rash, drastic, action results in almost immediate regret. She is then presented with two options. Live with her decision or attempt to change it. Pyewacket does a good job of relating how a grief stricken person may react in ways that are not typical for them. The big question here, however, is whether what we are seeing is what is actually happening.
Fairly Tense and Atmospheric
As mentioned above, Pyewacket is not a jump scare horror. It is built around a feeling of tension and the sense that you never really know what is going to happen next. It does a very good job at this. The tension rises slowly. The first part of the film is dedicated entirely to establishing the characters and their relationships. We learn about Leah and how the loss of her father has forced her to seek solace in the occult. There is some focus placed on Leah’s mother, as well, who is struggling just as much. We also spend some time with Leah’s friends who, although fairly inconsequential to the story, share an interest in dark magic, and the like. They act as a tool of exposition for Leah’s feelings and even as her conscience later on reminding her of how irresponsible she has been.
Leah and her mother have a complicated relationship. Though they seemingly get on well, they frequently argue and seem to lack understanding of each other. Leah’s mother dislikes her daughter’s friends and is concerned about her interest in the occult. Leah thinks her mum is selfish for wanting to move and develops more and more resentment for her as time goes on. Leah’s mother says something that, in the eyes of many, would be somewhat unforgiveable which leads to Leah developing homicidal feelings toward her.
Pyewacket appears as a demon that is summoned by Leah using a spell. Although somewhat in the shadows, the scares increase as Pyewacket begins to reveal itself more and more. Starting as knocks on the wall, Pyewacket demands a keen eye rewarding viewers who enjoy watching the backgrounds. Despite the presence of Pyewacket, the movie never really progresses to anything too full on. The focus here, as mentioned above, is on building the atmosphere and increasing tension. The suggestion of something malevolent is sometimes more effective than actually showing it. That doesn’t mean that the movie never gets close to full on horror, however. It is just not the primary focus.
A Fitting Setting
Initially starting in a standard suburban neighbourhood, Leah and her mum move out to an isolated house in the countryside. Surrounded by woods, the house is the perfect setting for a horror movie. Feeling suitably cut off from the rest of the world, the location adds plenty of tension to some of the later scenes following Leah’s summoning of Pyewacket. Obviously being in the middle of the woods scraping pentagrams into the dirt is exactly what you would expect when thinking of occult goings on. It is the ideal setting all things considered.
It is made clear to the viewer that this house is located far away from Leah’s friends. The drive to school takes over an hour and appears to take place through long straight roads surrounded by woods. This actually plays into the plot later on in the movie which I thought was a nice touch. Leah’s isolation is highlighted in perfect fashion when she has a friend sleep over and again when she needs help from another friend.
Night time scenes feel particularly tense and hopeless. The oppressive darkness gives a real sense of how scary the woods would be. The fact that said woods surround the house offering a perfect hiding place for a something with bad intentions only adds to that. All told, it is a great setting and works fantastically well.
I was not a fan of the camera work in Pyewacket. There is a dreamy style to many of the shots and a desire to linger on small details. Much of this feels like standard independent horror stuff. The problems start when the cameras are not static. The use of handheld cameras permeates the entirety of the movie. Shots that might otherwise be described as inventive or creative are actually nauseating and chaotic. Quick switches of perspective, chase cams, and jittery unstable zoom ins feature throughout.
The much maligned found footage horror genre has absolutely nothing on the amount of shaky cam present in Pyewacket. It is ridiculous! I appreciate creativity and some of the shots are, undeniably, inventive. For me, however, they absolutely do not work and I found the movie difficult to enjoy from a camera work perspective. Simple shots following a running character are not taken on rails. It is a person running alongside like something out of a video game. Certain scenes feature a character running up to an object followed by the camera hovering at foot level only to quickly switch to the cameraman running to meet the character. It is messy and, frankly, uncomfortable to watch.
I’m willing to bet there are a fair few people that will really enjoy this style. It didn’t work for me, however, and I really disliked it. Static shots are absolutely fine. The constant movement of the camera was just too much and cheapens many of the scenes. The fantastic Canadian scenery shines through, however, and always looks great.
Acting is okay for the most part. People rave about Nicole Muñoz’s performance as if she didn’t use the same facial expression for the entire movie. Seriously, put the movie on and drag the cursor through the entire length of the film looking at the frames as you go. What you are going to see is Leah in a bunch of different situations pulling the exact same face. Sometimes she has tears, sometimes a slight smile. The majority of the time, however, she has one slightly open mouthed expression. She absolutely can act and some scenes really stand out but a little more direction on the importance of facial expressions would have improved things a lot. When she has to express emotion, she does very well.
Leah’s friends are very underdeveloped characters and the actors don’t have much of an opportunity to do anything with them. Chloe Rose gives a nice turn as one of those pseudo alternative girls that is sceptical of everything and a bit annoying. She gets an opportunity to show her acting chops in a decent scene later on in the movie when she spends the night at Leah’s house. The standout performance here is well loved actor Laurie Holden as Leah’s mum. She gives a nuanced performance as a grieving widow trying to adapt to life without her partner.
Unlikeable Characters and Ridiculous Escalation
A minor problem with Pyewacket is just how unlikeable the characters are. Leah’s friends are fairly obnoxious and certainly not endearing. The fact that they all look like they are pushing 30 probably didn’t help. It reminded me of adults doing bad impressions of their teen selves. Leah is just as bad and her tendency to overreact begins to grate on you pretty hard by the middle of the movie. My partner and I actually ended up feeling sorry for her mum for all the shit she took from her. I am not sure if that was the intention. Watching a spoiled girl slam deathcore while reading an occult book and feeling sorry for herself makes for fairly awkward viewing. I get it, her dad has died but that doesn’t make her easier to relate to.
I will point out, as well, that my partner and I are alternative. This isn’t a tirade against alternative people. I am full on black hair, eyeliner, and tons of hairspray. My beef with these characters is with the way they are portrayed more than the way they look. I find them unlikeable and the more screen time they got the less I liked them. They are cynical and terminally serious. Alternative characters can be made likeable. Winona Ryder and Christina Ricci have been playing likeable alternative characters for years. Ginger snaps knocks it out of the park. These characters are just poorly written and incredibly cliched. It doesn’t help that the insane escalation of events makes Leah even more of a tough character to like.
There is absolutely no reason for Leah to resort to the actions she does. People may point out that things like this happen but that tends to be in the case of serious mental disturbance. Pyewacket features a girl that has an otherwise decent relationship with her mother choosing to summon a demon to murder her because “words”. The real villain in Pyewacket is the poorly developed motivations of the main character. It undermines the entire plot of the movie.
Is it a Metaphor and Suspect Reviews
With movies like this you often find yourself wondering whether the events that take place are metaphorical or real. We have The Babadook to blame for this recent resurgence of these types of movie. Pyewacket feels a lot like Babadook. The themes of grief and resentment take centre stage and it’s hard not to notice some of the things the two films have in common. Whether the events that take place are real or imagined is up for debate and that at least offers some element of intrigue to the ending of the movie. It is worth mentioning that the ending is quite shocking and definitely worth sticking around to see.
Whereas The Babadook was scary in parts, Pyewacket is not and that is bound to put some people off. It is slow moving, fairly tense, but never offers up anything close to a decent scare. For a horror movie, this is a bit of a problem as some fans expect more than tension and atmosphere. This may be the reason for a whole bunch of 1/10 reviews on IMDB. This is, obviously, a completely unfair score.
Pyewacket, despite its flaws, has a lot to offer and can be, at times, a fairly compelling watch. On the flip side of this is a whole collection of 9/10 and 10/10 scores. This is equally ridiculous. This is a flawed movie that, at its best, is lacking in the qualities that make for a nigh on perfect horror movie. It is entirely watchable and some people may love it. To say it is perfect, however, is completely untrue.
Is it a Knockout?
Pyewacket is a slow burn psychological horror movie focusing on a young girl and her fractured relationship with her mother. Suffering the loss of her father, Leah fails to overcome her grief and turns to occult practices. Not particularly scary but with a brooding tension throughout, Pyewacket does a pretty nice job of building a dark atmosphere and keeping the viewer engaged. A suitably creepy setting and a few effective moments keep the viewer tense leading up to a truly shocking ending.
Acting is fine with special mention going to an excellent, nuanced, performance from Laurie Holden as Leah's grieving mother. Characters are, for the most part, fairly unlikeable with Leah, in particular, being very difficult to relate to or even like. Cinematography is, at times, fine but too often resorts to the use of shaky cam creating a somewhat off-putting visual. The poorly developed plot offers very little reason for the escalation and the events that follow seem almost ridiculous given the premeditation needed to make them happen. It is pretty farcical and undermines the entire plot of the movie. If you enjoy slow burn horror with a fairly interesting story and have a high tolerance for plot holes, give it a go. Fans of fast paced horror, however, should probably avoid Pyewacket.