Pyewacket is a surprising little psychological occult thriller that manages to do a lot with little. This is the third Canadian horror film that I’ve screened at TIFF 2017 (following Les Affames and The Crescent) and while they’re all a little niche, the quality of these indie films has been really solid.
Here our protagonist is Leah (Nicole Muñoz), a high school girl with a recently deceased father and a mother (Lauren Holden) who is not handling the tragedy particularly well. Leah has channeled her grief into a fascination with the occult and there’s a suggestion that her slightly goth-y friends may also be new acquisitions. When mom suggests that a move an hour north is what they need to recover from their loss, Leah balks. After another spat, Leah decides to dispose of her mother by performing a ritual in the woods to invoke Pyewacket.
One of the smartest things that writer/director Adam MacDonald does is keep the audience guessing about what is – or isn’t – happening. Our allegiance is to Leah, who is in nearly every frame, so what she experiences, we experience. As the film progresses, however, it becomes increasingly clear that she’s an unreliable witness. Pyewacket plays on this uncertainty, focusing on mood and tension rather than trot out a monster that the budget can’t afford. In fact, Pyewacket is only truly glimpsed twice: once in the cover of night as the demon unfurls from the ceiling like a murky fog and again near the climax in the form of a J-horror style creature crawling on all fours. Both times benefit from a lack of lighting that stretches the budget and allows the audience to use our imagination.
Full blown scares are minimal, though there’s also only a single fake-out jump scare (which is admittedly still really effective). Instead, MacDonald’s screenplay teases and delays, ramping up the psychological tension and employing a few deft narrative surprises that keep us guessing, especially with regard to the timing of Pyewacket’s arrival. Has Leah’s ritual actually worked? Has her mother already been killed and taken over by the Pyewacket? Or is Leah simply hallucinating an imaginary villain to symbolically represent all of her problems? It’s impressive how much mileage MacDonald wrangles out of these questions without resorting to repetition.
As the mother, Holden is predictably solid in a role that frequently asks for her to be a bitch or a personification of evil. At this point she’s effortlessly great in genre roles (sidebar: can someone please cast her and Lauren Holly as sisters in a horror flick asap? Thanks!). Muñoz is also quite good, especially as Leah becomes increasingly unhinged heading into the final act.
There are a few minor issues, principally a lack of clarity about what exactly Pyewacket is. There’s no mythology or characteristics provided, which may have been a deliberate creative decision to keep the antagonist vague and malleable, but as a villain, Pyewacket remains a little underwhelming. The other issues mostly involve the film’s secondary characters. Chloe Rose as Leah’s bestie has a few great scenes, though an implied confrontation with Pyewacket during a sleepover is a dangling plot thread that could have used some resolution.The appearance of occult novelist Rowan Dove (James McGowan), meanwhile, doesn’t really amount to anything. Ditto Leah’s burgeoning romance with Aaron (Eric Osborne), who disappears for the entire middle section of the film.
A final point worth applauding is the sound design of the film. MacDonald and his sound crew really crank up the volume, which helps every crunching leaf, whistling wind and creaky floorboard stand out. Horror movies are notoriously reliant on their soundtrack – be it score or sound effect – and MacDonald’s heightened sensory output definitely helps to keep Pyewacket a tense and involving viewing experience.