Director: Adam McDonald
Cast: Nicole Muñoz, Laurie Holden, Chloe Rose, Eric Osborne, Romeo Carere, James McGowan
It’s amazing, how much damage a single shot can cause an otherwise good film. It’s not that the shot is in any way bad (on the contrary, it’s quite disturbing), it’s that it tells us too much too soon. The climax of Pyewacket could have been a terrifying and paranoia-rich conclusion to what has been, by that point, a very effective slow-burn horror thriller, yet because of what that one shot tells us at the start of the climax, the movie shoots itself in the foot. What happens in the end isn’t scary; it’s just depressing.
Without that one shot, writer and director Adam McDonald could have given us a truly thrilling climax. The entire movie was building up to a frightening mind game, as the demon of the title is said to be able to take the form of anything or anyone it chooses. There’s even a character who tells our leading lady to “Don’t trust your lying eyes” (advice she doesn’t really take to heart). This would lead you to believe that the climax would be filled with scary moments where nothing would be as they seem, yes?
Except, the movie doesn’t go that route. Throughout the entire climax, I knew exactly what was going on, and I knew exactly where it was headed. One could argue that maybe McDonald was wanting to end the film on a note of ambiguity: Was there a supernatural presence, or was the main character just crazy? That would have been something, except that the aforementioned shot (which shows us something the main character can’t see) lets us know that something supernatural is happening, so if that really was his intent, he misfired there as well.
I know this is a lot of talk about the ending, but given how good the earlier scenes were, and how they promised something a lot more compelling than what we got, it really helps to explain why I find the movie as a whole rather disappointing. The majority of the movie focuses on the dysfunctional relationship between a mother (Laurie Holden) and her daughter Leah (Nicole Muñoz). They both have different ways of dealing with the loss of the family patriarch: The mother wants to move to a new home because the house they’re in now reminds her of her husband’s funeral, and Leah wants to stay behind because of the memories and because she’s closer to her friends.
Leah has also been dabbling in the occult ever since her father passed because it brings her comfort. After a particularly heated argument where her mother says something incredibly hurtful out of anger, Leah runs out into the woods and performs a ritual to summon the demon Pyewacket, in hopes that the creature will kill her mother. Shortly after the ritual is complete, her mother apologizes and sincerely tries making amends with her daughter. Leah begins to regret performing the ritual, although she doesn’t make any effort to reverse it until the very end of the movie.
Suddenly, Leah begins to hear noises coming from the attic at night. She’s pretty freaked out about it, so much that she has her best friend Janice (Chloe Rose) spend the night. The next day, Janice is terrified. She saw something that morning, and because of what she saw, she refuses to go back into Leah’s house and locks herself away in her room for the rest of the movie. It’s to the movie’s credit that we never really know what happened to Janice in that house, yet by the end, it almost doesn’t matter.
It’s very difficult to get behind a character like Leah. She’s not very likable, although Muñoz is so good in the role that you’re willing to overlook that. Holden is the one character I sympathized with the most. I felt like I understood her, I felt bad for her, and in the end, she kind of broke my heart. Accompanied by some excellent cinematography by Christian Bielz, stunning set decoration by Stephanie Maione, and sharp editing by Maureen Grant, McDonald creates an intensely atmospheric and character focused horror show. Some of it is quite creepy, although the best moments involve Leah’s mother making an effort to bond with her daughter (there’s a really touching moment when she talks about how Leah’s dad drove 13 hours to make it for her birth).
For the most part, I do like this movie, which is what makes the ending all the more frustrating. McDonald was planting the seeds for a seriously twisted mind screw of a horror movie, but he cops out right at the start of the film’s payoff. Pyewacket would be better seen on a smaller screen. For a trip to the theaters, it doesn’t quite make the cut.
Rated R for disturbing violent images, profanity, teen drug use.
Final grade: ** ½ (out of ****)