Intriguing Canadian horror pic “Pyewacket” is sort of “Lady Bird” in extremis: Its heroine is a teen caught in an antagonistic relationship with her single mum who becomes so unhappy that she casts an occult spell, to everyone’s eventual grief. A sinister mix of dysfunctional-adolescent drama and horror-movie elements, Adam MacDonald’s sophomore feature is perhaps ultimately more successful in the former terms than the latter — some genre fans may find there’s not quite enough conventional payoff. It’s the rare horror film that’s actually more effective in psychological terms than in suspense ones.
Fifteen-year-old Leah (Nicole Munoz) is furious and miserable when her combative if well-meaning, recently-widowed mother (“The Walking Dead’s” Laurie Holden) relocates them both to a house in the woods, isolating her already conspicuously disgruntled only child from the few friends she has, notably bestie Janice (Chloe Rose) and almost-boyfriend Aaron (Eric Osbourn).
Goth-styled lass that she is, Leah peevishly consults a handy black magic book to summon a demon … because, y’know, mean moms deserve demonic punishment. Unfortunately, her supernatural transgression turns out to have all-too-real consequences. They first manifest themselves as a series of ephemeral disturbances around the rural home, but soon turn more actively life-threatening.
With its focus on a nicely detailed, credibly problematic single-parent relationship — neither Leah nor her mother come off particularly well here — “Pyewacket” gets out of the gate with conspicuously more intelligence for “just a” horror film. (In one nice exchange from MacDonald’s sharp screenplay, the erratic-acting mother says, “I need you on my side,” to which Leah frankly replies, “You’re all over the place.”)
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Its restraint is manifested in, among other things, very fleeting, shadowy views of the titular menace. There’s a fair sense of urgency to the escalating emergency, as well as a neat irony to the way things ultimately work out. (Hint: not well.) But the climax feels abrupt, and the horror elements may strike some as ultimately not potent enough to satisfy, given that they’re the direction this movie is headed in.
Nonetheless, this second feature for writer-director MacDonald (whose debut “Backcountry” was an effectively stripped-down tale of non-supernatural wilderness peril) has admirable strengths. There’s an understated, elegant confidence to its presentation from the opening, which immediately makes the woods a sinister presence. And the performers are very skillfully handled, from Holden’s particularly strong turn as an exasperatingly unpredictable parent who grows sensitive to her also-grieving child’s needs a tad late, to the palpable, near-wordless terms by which we realize Leah and Aaron are falling in love.
With effective additional support from Lee Walia’s score and all other tech/design contributors, “Pyewacket” is a movie that actually benefits from repeat viewings — though at first watch it may disappoint those looking for traditional jump scares and gore.