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THE CONJURE THING
Director: Adam MacDonald
Screenplay: Adam MacDonald
Review: David Stephens
We’re not ones at YGROY to judge people’s belief systems or make bold statements about things we can’t categorically prove, due more to the amount of possible abuse through social media rather than anything else. So we’re not going to snort and dismiss the idea of those who genuinely practise witchcraft (or believe they do). But what we will say is that it’s a damned good job that mystical powers are far beyond the reach of the general populace. Because if guns and knives are a plague for simpletons who would use them for revenge and intimidation, imagine what it would be like if the average person could easily place a curse on an enemy from afar. Great for stopping crappy world leaders, but everything would change overnight with people dropping like flies as petty vendettas played out to their logical conclusion. Happily in the world of horror cinema, the occult is only available to a select few and the forbidden knowledge is usually milked for its frightful and fictional potential. “Pyewacket” is the latest version of that sub-genre, and is written/directed by Adam Macdonald, who also made the effective killer-bear thriller “Backcountry”. After showings at TIFF and Frightfest, the film is now available on DVD and VOD in the UK. So YGROY goes all “Expelliarmus” on the “Avada Kedavra” and takes a look at the movie…
Leah Reyes (a nicely judged performance from Nicole Muñoz) is a typical teenage girl in a typical Canadian town going to a typical high-school. She is marked however by the recent death of her father (we’re never told the circumstance) and the effect it has on her mother Mrs Reyes (played by the underrated Laurie Holden…and no, we never learn her first name). Whilst Leah is certainly not a Goth as such, she has an interest in the occult and death-metal, and has a group of close friends who share her interests. Her unremarkable life takes a turn for the worse when her mother makes some snap decisions and moves them into a (literal) cabin in the woods. It takes her away from the few things that make Leah happy and starts to take a toll on their relationship. After one particularly heavy argument between the two, the teenager is left feeling frustrated, isolated, and angry. She channels those feelings into her knowledge of the occult and performs an elaborate evocation for an entity known as “Pyewacket” to target her mother for death. Of course, almost immediately she regrets her actions, but has the “spell” actually summoned anything and can she really stop an evil supernatural force if it did?
One thing to note about “Pyewacket” is that you shouldn’t expect a full-on witchy scare-fest like “Blair Witch Project”, or Wiccan conjurations like “The Craft”. This is a different animal altogether and one which relies on slow-burn and mind-games. Some wit has labelled it “Ladybird” with witchcraft, and whilst that it isn’t a very accurate description it points to the importance of the central relationship and well-rounded characters involved. Because the most striking and affecting element of the story is the way in which the characters are realised. Leah is not a “bad girl” or someone prone to throwing death-curses around with abandon. She’s mostly shown as a likeable and relatable teenager on the cusp of womanhood. She’s not obsessed with witchcraft (or even thrash metal), merely interested in it and the heritage behind it. Leah doesn’t even recognise that her male BFF is into her in a major way, and fails to engage in predictable sexy-times. In comparison, and mostly because we’re seeing her out of context and from Leah’s perspective, Mrs Reyes does sometimes come across as unreasonable and even a bitch at times. She makes decisions that affect her daughter without consulting her, and not taking into consideration the impact of those. But whilst she’s not the best example of a single parent, those actions are completely understandable. And as another character points out early on, parents are just people too.
It’s this complex and totally believable interaction between mother and daughter that provides the solid foundation for the narrative. The teen angst aspect is played out pretty much perfectly without being at all patronising, as is the reversal of Leah’s opinion of Mrs. Reyes. It capitalises on that brief moment of white anger we may feel towards a loved one, especially when they underestimate the effect of their actions. This is represented in a lovely subtle way when Mrs Reyes insults Leah with a word that we are never privy to … along with the absence of the mother’s first name and the nature of the father’s death. It’s not the details that are important, it’s the emotional toll they have. Admittedly most of us wouldn’t go to the woods and pour a bowl of blood into the ground to get payback, but this wouldn’t be a genre film otherwise. Kudos to Muñoz and Holden for their performances as well, which are excellent. Both nail the emotions required, and provide the crucial chemistry (or necessary lack thereof) for the story to work.
Scary though? Well, by the nature of the tale, there is some ambiguity and plenty of slow-burn to it. So don’t expect levitating hags flying through the window. But there are moments of undeniable creepiness that are surprisingly chilling. The shadow in the bedroom, the unspoken ordeal of Janice (Chloe Rose), and the climatic glimpse of… “Something”, are all nicely handled with no obvious or unnecessary jump-scares. There are nods to “Blair Witch” and more sedate POV cam-shots calling back to the original “The Evil Dead”. For the most part the genre elements are subtle but still manage to unsettle in the best possible way. It leads to some harrowing moments at the finale, which is slightly spoiled by a massive quote on the DVD cover drawing attention towards it. It is an appropriate last-act, but unlike plenty of people who have been blown away by it, we actually felt that it was a somewhat overly-familiar. It might be a case of building up expectations but even so, we would have liked elements of it to be a little less predictable. However the whole aspect of mind-games is played out very efficiently… even if you feel the need to remind a certain character about something important they had been told, only mere movie-minutes ago.
That minor quibble aside, there’s still a lot to admire and like about this Indie horror. Its great how none of the characters are categorically “heroes” or “villains”, and that there are no stereotypes to be seen. Even Leah’s friends react with disgust on the subject of matricide, rather than freak-out about possibly demonic entities or proclaim the whole situation to be cool. It’s all rather refreshing and devoid of easy cynical judgements, and provides for an off-beat and realistic take on the way the occult could infiltrate suburbia. Perhaps some might wish for a bit more witchery and a less-guessable pivotal moment (as harrowing as it is), but beyond that “Pyewacket” is every witch way but bad.
DVD Extras: 10 minutes of interviews with the cast and crew + an interesting behind-the-scenes featurette about the set-up for a harrowing scene in the film
A really effective and unsettling twist on familial drama and teen-angst, with some genuinely chilling moments. Both Holden and Muñoz are excellent as the leads, and the slow-burn occult elements are freshly dealt with. The ending does feel a little overly familiar though, and the genre elements are sparingly used.
Nevertheless it’s a fine little film that just might bewitch you.
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