"Pyewacket" takes an age-old proverb"Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it"and puts its own diabolical spin on it. Writer-director Adam MacDonald, who previously helmed 2015's unbear
ably tense "Backcountry
," knows exactly how to draw viewers into a deliberately paced web heightened by tight coils of apprehension. By taking his time and focusing on his characters at the onset, what happens next means more. If "Backcountry
" was a relatively plausible survival thriller, his sophomore effort is more supernaturally inclined, a cursed tale of malevolent black magic brought to life. Where the narrative ends up isn't half as satisfying as the build-up, but the film works on the whole based on MacDonald's controlled craftsmanship and the empathetic central performances of Nicole Muñoz (2010's "Tooth Fairy
") and Laurie Holden (2014's "Dumb and Dumber To
A few years after the death of their father and husband, 16-year-old Leah (Nicole Muñoz) and her mom, Mrs. Reyes (Laurie Holden), continue to struggle moving forward. Whereas Leah has embraced the occult and surrounded herself with like-minded friends at school, an aggrieved Mrs. Reyes is stuck in a home that, as she describes to her daughter, "feels like your father's funeral, every fucking day." In an attempt at a fresh start, they move an hour away to a country cottage in the woods. Leah, however, is none too happy about this change. Overcome with anger following a big blow-out argument, she takes to the forest and calls upon a demonic force known as Pyewacket to send her mom to her grave. It's a spell she immediately lives to regret when it becomes clear something evil really has been unleashed.
In its most affecting moments, "Pyewacket" recalls the encroaching dread of 2015's "It Follows
." Forced to deal with the effects of her own recklessness but not about to quit fighting to reverse the curse and save her mother, Leah is a flawed but proactive heroine. As prickly as her relationship with her mom can be, there is undeniable love between them; it's a complicated portrait of a mother-daughter bond not entirely unlike the one found between Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan's characters in 2017's "Lady Bird." This is where comparisons to Greta Gerwig's Oscar-nominated coming-of-age drama end, as "Pyewacket" journeys toward a grimly harrowing second half concerned above all with mustering fear and paranoia. Lensed with eavesdropping atmosphere by Christian Bielz, the film creates suspense through prolonging the expectation of something terrible happening. The climax, unfortunately, underwhelms, with Leah's actions overtaken by script contrivances; to buy into what she does in these final moments, there needed to be a whole lot more reality-twisting buildup and an overarching belief she had no other choice. It's a disappointing but not ruinous conclusion to an otherwise riveting crystal ball of disquieting portent.