Ritualist's Remorse: "Pyewacket" keeps tight leash on character and insidious, nerve-rattling tension

Pyewacket (2018)
88 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Writer-director Adam MacDonald, he of 2015’s intensely harrowing “Backcountry” about a couple’s camping excursion gone horribly wrong, pulls out a daring premise for his follow-up project. Horror indie “Pyewacket” does what the most successful horror films should do, caring about its scares as much as about keeping its characters in the forefront. Had the genre elements been stripped altogether, the film would still be very involving as a character drama. MacDonald has not only conceived a wicked, unforgiving horror tale about a moral quandary with “Pyewacket” but something far more disturbing and devastating about human frailty, the difficulty of loss, the power and dangers of belief, and the irreversibility of a wish that just might come true.

Angsty teen Leah Reyes (Nicole Muñoz) has turned to the dark side since her father’s death. She has a deep interest in black magic, pentagrams, and the occult, and her relationship with her mother (Laurie Holden) has grown strained. Having a hard time with her husband gone, Mom signs a lease on a house two hours away up north and uproots them. Leah’s anger deepens, having to leave her friends, who also think black magic is cool. After emotions run high and Leah has a fight with her mother, she runs off into the woods to perform a ritual from a book, using milk, herbs, a strand of her mother’s hair from a brush, and blood from her own wrist. This, in turn, invokes a witch to kill her mother, but even after Leah’s mother sincerely apologizes for being hard on her, there’s no taking back what the regretful Leah has summoned.

Thankfully not another routine horror movie where a family moves into a house haunted by a supernatural presence, “Pyewacket” builds a pall of insidious, mounting dread within a fully realized mother-daughter drama that drives toward a gut-punch finale. Director Adam MacDonald never pulls the focus away from Leah’s crumbling innocence and tumultuous relationship with her mother. Besides their button-pushing arguments, there is also enough affecting downtime between daughter and mother to show the love that’s still in there, getting the viewer to hope everything will turn out all right for them, even if their fates are already sealed. Once Leah performs her ritual, MacDonald eschews easy jump scares for a slow-burn tempo of good, old-fashioned tension and mood. How much the viewer actually sees is kept judiciously under control with effectively creepy use of shadow and two separate moments involving footsteps, and a droning sound design is nerve-rattling enough.

Nicole Muñoz and Laurie Holden are excellent in roles that give them tricky emotional avenues to traverse. Both characters are struggling emotionally and in a great deal of pain following the loss of their father and husband, but both cope in different ways — Leah dabbles in the dark arts and her mother turns to wine. Muñoz has a calm, authentic presence as Leah, which helps make the destructive way of dealing with her harsh feelings toward her mother believable, as well as the immediate regrets after cursing the person who bore her. As a mother who is at her wits' end but doing the best she can and wants to start anew for both herself and Leah, Holden remains sympathetic with instances of warmth and anger as Mrs. Reyes.

Waiting for the other shoe to drop—and the when and how—is a major source of the suspense. Even when Leah’s cynical best friend Janice (Chloe Rose) sleeps over one night and ends up being found in Leah’s mother’s car crying hysterically the next morning, the mystery of what she saw that horrified her is left to our imaginations. From there, the final fifteen minutes are tense and frightening, blurring the line between what is real and what takes form as the witch. Director MacDonald compromises nothing with the grim final moments and the implications of everything that has transpired. As “Pyewacket” teaches, wishing tragedy against the one you love out of temporary rage just opens up far worse repercussions for both parties.

Grade: B +