Welcome back to Let’s Scare Bryan to Death, where I’m celebrating the Halloween season with one hell of a creepy movie courtesy of Alexandra West. You may know West as one half of the Faculty of Horror podcast, author of Films of the New French Extremity and The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle, and prolific contributor to a list of major horror outlets too long to count. Think of West as that teacher that everyone likes because she doesn’t ham it up with goofy schtick (I’ve got that covered, don’t worry), and she explores complex topics in a way that always seems to make sense.
West chose a perfectly moody, demonic yarn for October in Adam MacDonald’s 2018 horror film Pyewacket. The film follows Leah Reyes (Nicole Muñoz), a teenage girl at odds with her mother (Laurie Holden) following the death of Leah’s father. Leah is brooding and moody, finding comfort in her friends as well as black metal and the occult. Having trouble moving on from her husband’s death, Mrs. Reyes decides the best thing for them both is to get out of town and start fresh. This doesn’t sit well with Leah, who’s terrified of being cut off from her friends. After a particularly bad fight, Leah finds a summoning ritual for Pyewacket, who she calls on to kill her mother. Soon Leah comes to her senses and realizes she doesn’t want her mother dead, but she doesn’t know if that’s enough to keep the demon from paying them a visit anyway.
When I asked West why she wanted to discuss Pyewacket for this column, the answer was simple: she thinks it’s a terrific movie.
I fell in love with [Pyewacket] when I saw it a little over a year ago. Andrea [Subissati] had recommended it to me, and it encapsulates so much of what I love about horror, from the mood, to the creepy aesthetic, to the likeable characters, to building dread, to the tenuousness of interpersonal and intimate relationships, that I recommend it to anyone I get the chance to. I saw it around the same time I saw Hereditary and, to be perfectly honest, Hereditary felt like a bombastic, over-the-top version of Pyewacket, which is so beautifully constructed and tightly paced that it really kept me on the edge of my seat. Oh, and it scared the f*** out of me.
As someone who loved Hereditary (a movie that, like Pyewacket, focuses on grief and family dynamics), West certainly had my attention. I wondered if maybe she was just stirring the pot a bit by comparing the two, but after watching both films I have to admit I’m a convert. I still love Hereditary, but Pyewacket is something special, particularly considering how MacDonald crafted a story with women at its center that not only avoided tone-deaf characterizations, but also deftly connected them to issues we all face. I was interested to find out if West had any thoughts on how MacDonald navigated these topics so deftly.
I’ve heard MacDonald talk about the film at a post-screening Q&A, and he’s been pretty open about drawing from his own experience as an adolescent to create this film. He created very likeable characters that are in tough situations. He treats everyone like a human being who has good moments and bad moments. Mrs. Reyes starts as your typical terrible mom, but as the film progresses she is kind and funny and is doing her best. The sense I get is that MacDonald likes his characters and he wants his audience to like them, too. The struggle between teens and parents is very real, even in the best scenarios, and MacDonald taps into the confusion and anxiety that surrounds the relationship as it becomes more equal and less domineering.
Indeed, MacDonald seems to really care for his characters, even in a story where (at least initially) they don’t seem to really care for one another. He makes an interesting choice to show Leah and Mrs. Reyes a very specific spot in their lives, already at their breaking point just as they’re being introduced.
It puts the characters, who have an immense amount of history (being mother and daughter), and places them in a new starting point, one where both characters are irrevocably changed and are grappling with a new normal, creating a natural entry point for an audience.
MacDonald invites us to sympathize with the mindset of a grieving young girl so mad at her mom that she’d wish her dead. We all have moments with our family, particularly our parents, that we wish we could take back. I wondered if West thought Leah truly believed her ritual would summon a demon to kill her mother, or if this was just some attempt at catharsis?
I’m not sure if she believed fully in the demon, but I think she believes something will happen when she performs the ritual. She’s at a breaking point where she needs to assert some control, so she takes this action.
Regardless of whether Leah believed Pyewacket was real when she performed her ritual, both West and I agree that the film is more compelling if the audience views the demon as real. Or, as West succinctly noted when I asked if there was any chance that Pyewacket is a manifestation of Leah’s psyche:
SPOOKY WITCH LADIES ARE REAL AND LIVE IN THE FOREST AND WILL HAUNT YOU FOREVER. I believe that. But sure, if you want to be a buzzkill, then I’m sure you can make that argument [that it’s all in her head].
Historically, Pyewacket is the name given to one of the familiars used by accused witches from 17th century England, but I saw the version in this film as a more of a Faustian “deal with the devil” sort of entity, and I asked West if she saw it the same way.
I don’t know if I see it as a deal with the devil kind of thing, maybe more of a “you can never contain evil once you unleash it” sense.
West’s interpretation much better fits with the film’s themes. Leah is terrified of what her actions will bring, and that fear permeates the film, as well as the performances depicting Leah’s relationships not only with her mother, but also her friends.
They provided an authenticity to the film. The relationships are well-written and I think the cast has great chemistry—it felt like the friendships I remember from that age. Placing that familiarity within a horror film immediately creates more fear because it begins to hit close to home.
Also at play is MacDonald’s use of setting. Where most films try to recreate autumn by slapping a few piles of leaves around palm trees, MacDonald clearly shot in a more temperate climate that was neck-deep in autumn, complete with a natural layer of leaves covering the ground and even subtle hints of breath visible from the actors’ mouths. West speaks for all of us fall fetishists when she gushes about the authentic atmosphere, but also explains why it’s important for the film.
I could cry at how beautifully fall is represented in this film. It’s always an eerie time of year. There’s so much folklore about the fall bringing darkness and therefore weakening the barrier between the living and the dead. So I think there is something more sinister and creepy about that time of year that adds to the feeling of being in the woods. The woods (to cite a cliché) is practically another character in the film.
Now, for those hoping for a happy resolution, *SPOILER ALERT* I’m afraid you’re going to be very disappointed. In any other genre (and even in different hands within horror), this movie ends with Leah realizing her mistake, atoning for what she’s done, and entering a better relationship with her mother. We don’t get there here, as Leah not only can’t save her mother, she’s inadvertently the one who kills her mother. I wondered if there’s anything to take from this movie other than nihilism, but West thinks there’s definitely something there.
I think it’s absolutely a nihilistic ending, but one where Leah knows what she’s done wrong. She saw the humanity and warmth in her mother at the end and tried to stop it, making the ending not just nihilistic, but tragic as well. There’s a blending of emotions and narrative that is so hard to do, but MacDonald pulls off a treat.
So, while it’s a pretty grim film, Pyewacket is worth watching not just for its ominous tone, but for its willingness to acknowledge how messy our psyches are and how that affects our relationships with those we love most. And West believes this makes for an instant classic.
It’s a surprisingly personal film, and I mean that in the sense that I think it’s very close to MacDonald, but also in a way that for many people I know who have enjoyed it, it has resonated with a deeper part of themselves and their youth. I think MacDonald honed in on the vulnerable, tortured parts of ourselves and reflects that in multiple characters, creating a unique and exceptionally successful film that I think will stand the test of time.