Writer-director Adam MacDonald follows his 2014 wilderness adventure “Backcountry” with “Pyewacket,” a supernatural thriller that like his earlier film derives much of its tension from dysfunctional human relationships. “Pyewacket” may be too vague and restrained for some fright fans, but it’s an impressive step forward in MacDonald’s efforts to infuse genre tropes with realistic nuance.
Nicole Muñoz stars as Leah Reyes, an intense Goth teen who develops a fascination with the occult after her dad dies. When her mother (Laurie Holden) moves them out to the country for a fresh start, Leah gets so annoyed that she casts a spell out in the forest, summoning the demon Pyewacket.
Aside from the usual unexplained noises and ill feeling, “Pyewacket” is barely a horror film in its first hour. Instead, MacDonald gives the excellent Muñoz and Holden the time and space to flesh out their characters: two grief-stricken women stuck with each other in a drab gray landscape.
In its final 20 minutes, the demonic evil becomes more overt. The movie gets genuinely terrifying as the heroine’s fragile mental state and the isolation of her woodland home creates a persistent unease.
“Pyewacket’s” payoff is a bit too meager given the creepy build-up. But as a psychodrama about a troubled mother and daughter, this movie is gripping from start to finish. Like a lot of the best horror, it’s about the hells people conjure for themselves.
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: Arena CineLounge, Hollywood