2018, like 2017, is shaping up to be a strong year for the horror film, especially with the upcoming release of A24 Studio’s Hereditary and the reboot of Halloween. Horror is poised to do well at the box office again this year, but some attention should be given to the independent films that have already been released this year, including Pyewacket, written and directed by Adam MacDonald and released by IFC Midnight.
The film stars Nicole Munoz as Leah, a rebellious teenager who listens to heavy metal and has a fascination with the occult. Leah may sound like a one-dimensional, cliche character, but she is not, mainly because of the story given to her. The central conflict revolves around Leah’s fragile relationship with her erratic mother, Mrs. Reyes, played by Laurie Holden (“The Walking Dead,” “The X-Files”). Holden’s performance is stellar. Her moods change from scene to scene and showcase Holden’s range as an actress. One minute, she is curled up on the bed, crying, and by the next scene, she is cooking pancakes for her daughter, trying to ease the tension with a smile. Mrs. Reyes is grief-stricken after losing her husband, and she wants to move away in order to move on, which puts her at odds with her daughter, who has found her place among fellow Goths at school.
Eventually, Leah dabbles with rituals and tries to summon a demon to punish her mother. In the hands of a less skilled director, this familiar plot line of a teenager in conflict with her mother would be yawnsome, but MacDonald makes it work. This is not a fast-paced film heavy on jump scares. Instead, it builds slowly and the viewer spends a lot of time getting to know Mrs. Reyes, Leah, and her friends, which makes the audience generally concerned for their well-being. The scares build slowly, from creaks in the house, to unnerving footsteps on the roof, to a rather memorable and startling conclusion.
More so, Pyewacket falls in line with recent horror movies that interrogate the imperfections of parents and also the lofty expectations placed on parents, especially mothers, to fulfill their role. The Babadook comes to mind. Mrs. Reyes, like the frazzled mother in The Babadook, Amelia (Essie Davis), tries to do her best but can only take on so much. The children in both films don’t make it easy on their mothers, either. Leah immediately protests the decision to move, discounting her mother’s grief. However, Pyewacket is a little more direct in questioning the ways that we idolize parents, especially mothers, and whether or not that’s healthy. In one of the early scenes, Leah’s friend Janice (Chloe Rose), asks, “Do you think our parents will always be our parents? We’re supposed to look up to them, but they’re just people. They fuck up. They make mistakes. Really, they’re just people.”
Mrs. Reyes is never depicted as the perfect mother. In fact, in one scene, she says to Leah, “Your friends are losers just like you’re becoming,” before adding that it’s impossible for her to move on when she sees her husband every day in her daughter’s face. Her mood swings display the effects of her grief and her newfound role as a widowed and single mother. It takes much longer in The Babadook for Amelia’s tension with her son to come to a head, though both mothers try to maintain their sanity, despite the demands of their children.
The fraught relationship between Leah and Mrs. Reyes and the strong performances by Holden and Munoz make Pyewacket one of this year’s most compelling horror films so far. The scares that ramp up by the film’s second half are an added bonus.
Pyewacket is currently available to rent on Amazon, YouTube, and other streaming services.