Thursday 19 April 2018

Pyewacket (Canada 2017: Dir Adam MacDonald)

The Dark Eyes of London site has been a rather singular pursuit of mine for the past five years, but I'm not immune to accepting the odd guest contribution from time to time - gives me time to go and make a cup of tea. The following has been written by Richard Halfhide, who has his own site, the extremely informative and highly commendable All Slights Deserved.

The name ‘Pyewacket’ first appeared in The Discovery of Witches, a 1647 pamphlet published by Matthew Hopkins, the infamous Witchfinder General. Described as having an appearance that “no mortal could invent”, Hopkins claimed Pyewacket was among a motley assortment of colourfully-titled familiar spirits (among them ‘Vinegar Tom’ and ‘Sacke and Sugar’) that a witch in Essex summoned forth following the witch hunters’ usual methods of persuasion, thereby earning herself a trip to the gallows for her troubles. 

Fortunately, those dabbling in witchcraft today have less to fear from Puritan reprisals, but far darker consequences may still ensue, according to the latest effort by Canadian writer/director Adam MacDonald. It’s the story of Leah (Nicole Muñoz), an angst-ridden teen whose fraught relationship with her recently widowed mother (Laurie Holden) reaches breaking point after the latter decides they should relocate to a remote house out in the sticks. Determined to be rid of her antagonist, and inspired by a recent meeting with an occult author, Leah casts a spell that inadvertently summons the titular entity.

Nicole Muñoz as Leah in Pyewacket
Unsurprisingly, what follows is very much a case of ‘be careful what you wish for.’ Pyewacket’s malign influence is first teased by a series of inexplicable incidents, leading up to more sinister occurrences. Claustrophobic camerawork does an effective job of drawing us into Leah’s darkening, increasingly introspective world. Yet there’s an annoying tendency for scenes to be a little too tight, when character development and horror alike might have benefitted from being drawn out. 

As the troubled teen, Muñoz performs ably, while Holden, best known for her appearances in The Walking Dead, has the ideal face for her ambivalent role, particularly in the latter stages. Unfortunately the script really doesn’t really give them enough to delve beneath the surface of their dynamic and the dialogue is sometimes wincingly clunky, making it difficult to feel much sympathy for either.  

There is, however, a foreboding atmosphere to the cinematography and Pyewacket’s first appearance, a shadowy presence in the corner of a room, is well executed. While it’s been bracketed with the new wave of Canadian cinema, the tone (visually and figuratively) put me more in mind of US indie psycho-thriller Super Dark Times. But whereas that film had the confidence to let the dread simmer into a toxic brew, Pyewacket seems to feel obliged to add further ingredients. One particular later scene featuring a Skype conversation is a serious misstep; a sop to a commercial formula that does the story no favours when it would have been better to explore Leah’s growing sense of alienation.

Ultimately, it comes across oddly like a torn-from-the-headlines TV movie, as though the story had been inspired by an actual incident, albeit with some added sensationalism. This may have been the intention, but it feels like a clumsy compromise of plot over substance. As an exploration of the relationship between a mother and daughter, Pyewacket is clearly geared towards a very different audience than Greta Gerwig’s whimsical Lady Bird, but that doesn’t mean richer characterisation is off limits.

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