Teenage Leah Reyes (Nicole Muñoz) has been suffering since her beloved father died, and now being brought up by her mother (Laurie Holden) is bringing fresh challenges because she is not coping very well with this grief either, and Leah doesn't know which mother she will have to deal with when she returns home each afternoon from school: bad mom or good mom. This is building up a great deal of resentment in the girl, and she feels the need to lash out, but fortunately she has her friends to help her through this difficult time - or at least she did, for after one late night session with them her mother has had enough and believes a house move is the very thing she and Leah need.
The fact that the house they are moving to is deep in the Canadian forests away from civilisation may seem like a good idea to clear the head and get back to what's important in life, but let's face it, this place looks not dissimilar to the Evil Dead cottage and any number of spam in a cabin horror flicks, so you should have some idea of where writer and director Adam MacDonald was aiming for in this, his second chiller after his fairly well-received killer bear movie Blackfoot Trail. An actor by trade, he was establishing himself as a genre filmmaker to watch with these efforts, and in Pyewacket he was again making the most of a Canadian landscape that could be highly forbidding.
What is Pyewacket? If you knew your Kim Novak movies, you would know him as the cat from her Bell, Book and Candle, but the name didn't emerge from nowhere, as it was actually a witch's familiar as mentioned in centuries-old literature on the occult. Early on we see Leah getting all fangirl with her favourite writer at a book signing, an author who specialises in this subject that appeals so much to young people seeking to have some control over their lives when they feel they have very little, or indeed none. But his details of black magic rituals are very attractive to her, to the extent that she wants to try out something in that vein herself; something rather drastic.
Her mother, who never gets a name here (other than "Mrs Reyes"), is apparently the bane of her life, so in a teenage overreaction Leah decides the best thing to do would be to kill her. Now, it's a bit of a leap in logic to ask the audience to believe she would go as far as that, but MacDonald was helped out by two excellent performances in what was often a two-hander between Muñoz and Holden, so we could recognise that it was bereavement that fuelled their poor choices and irrationality, and Leah in particular was far too immature to realise that killing someone because they annoy you, or have an influence over your life you think you can do without, is no way for a reasonable person to behave. In fact, it's a pretty solid way of getting yourself arrested, convicted and locked up.
All the way through we in the audience were invited to decide for ourselves whether we believed Leah had invoked a demonic entity to get rid of her mother, or in fact her mental instability had convinced her that was what she had done. There was not much gore here, but what it did have was a strong atmosphere of dread, matching the girl's advancing awareness that her mother was not some evil force messing up her daughter's existence, but a troubled woman who was doing her best to get over a major tragedy in her life: just like Leah is. This was what lent Pyewacket its impressive, gradually building tension, that the teen was growing out of what was a petulant act within hours of maybe doing something dreadful it was too late to take back, and the final act of violence went beyond eye-rolling at some stupid girl with no sense of perspective and into a fragile and dismaying consequence of not thinking your actions through. It was that, more than any horror movie convention, which made this worth a look for those interested in something more thoughtful, even regretful. Music by Lee Malia.