The director of ‘Backcountry’ leaves animal carnage behind in favor of supernatural terror.
The director of the new horror thriller, Pyewacket, has been working as an actor since the late 90s, but you wouldn’t know him. He’s Canadian. I kid Adam MacDonald, but even if you’ve missed his onscreen work in numerous TV and film productions from the Great White North (Rookie Blue is a solidly entertaining procedural series) you have no excuse for having missed his feature directorial debut, Backcountry. It’s easily among the very best animal attack movies of the past decade and made my list of 2015’s best horror movies. MacDonald’s sophomore feature effort in the director’s chair sees him sticking with the genre, but he’s traded natural terrors for some decidedly supernatural ones that are every bit as terrifying.
Leah (Nicole Muñoz) is a high-schooler still grieving over her father’s death, but while she’s found some solace in new friends, loud music, and a growing interest in the occult — its very nature suggests an afterlife which can be reassuring in the face of loss — her mother (Laurie Holden) isn’t coping quite as well. Unable to escape reminders of her husband’s absence, she decides to pick up roots and move them to a more rural area an hour away. The threat of leaving Leah’s friends and life behind leads to increased tension between the pair as they settle into their new, forest-set home, and when her mom crosses a line in an argument the devastated and furious teen crosses her own out in the woods.
Angry, confused, and reacting out of a rage only understandable to the teenage mind, Leah performs a blood incantation calling on an evil entity to come punish her mother. She’s almost immediately regretful, especially after her mom’s sincere apology the following morning, but she realizes it may be too late when an eerie presence begins making itself known.
Writer/director MacDonald crafts a beautifully-paced slow-burn with Pyewacket that explores the necessity and power of belief as well as the dangers. Just as his previous film did by leaving viewers uncertain (for a while) if the threat was animal or human in nature, his latest walks a fine with the source of the menace. Is Leah imagining the things she’s seeing and hearing? Or is a malicious and murderous spirit after their very souls?
Performances are fine throughout, but Muñoz impresses most as the core character who’s onscreen from beginning to end. Her shift from angsty teen to guilt-ridden daughter to terrified girl carries viewers with her on this descent, and we can’t help but believe and feel each step of the way. As with the recent The Devil’s Candy and IT, MacDonald’s film makes a point of ensuring we care about the lead which in turn adds an intensity to the scenes of terror and danger.
And some of those scenes are fucking terrifying. The presence first makes itself known through sounds around the house before eventually appearing as a dark figure rising slowly at the foot of Leah’s bed. It’s these kinds of scares — ones built on atmosphere, tone, moments that pause your breath — that power the back half of a movie that feels no need for easier jump scares. MacDonald uses sound equally well and avoids announcing every jolt with a loud Blumhouse.
(*Blumhouse, noun: A loud noise or musical stinger designed to make audiences jump instead of relying on direction, editing, and performances to create scares.)
MacDonald’s script affords the story a realistic bent too as Leah and her friends are believable teens who wear heavy metal band-graffitied jackets while still appreciating the sensual visage of the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan. They dabble in an appreciation for the occult — they read books, talk about how cool it is, and one of them even tries incantations to help get him laid — but none of them actually take it all that seriously. That changes once Leah’s world goes sideways.
Pyewacket has a simple premise, a steady build-up, and a fantastically creepy third act that lands with a punch to the gut. Be careful what you wish for, indeed.
[Our review of Pyewacket originally ran during TIFF 2017.)