An effective, small-scale supernatural-psychological drama rooted in credible, uncaricatured teen angst and a sense of ancient woodland evil. After the death of her father, protagonist Leah Reyes (Nicole Munoz) is drawn to what her mother (Laurie Holden) dismisses as ‘occult crap’. When Mrs Reyes summarily sells the family home and moves ‘North’ to a house in the woods, Leah is infuriated to be torn away from her small circle of sort-of goth friends. A particularly upsetting argument leads to Leah storming into the woods, wishing her mother dead She performs a ritual summoning – with blood, hair and red wool – of the demon Pyewacket, but instantly regrets it when the shock of seeing her daughter bleeding jolts the bipolar Mrs Reyes into revealing her real concern. Handy occult expert author Rowan Dove (James McGowan) – a familiar, useful figure in films about folk magic and demonology – explains that Leah will have to perform the ritual backwards to avert the curse – and that she is in as much danger from the demon as her mother.
The first half of the film is an understated drama about a mother and daughter locked in grief habits that put them at each other’s throats, neither appreciating how badly the other is suffering and how little they are helping, with low-key subcultural observations about Leah’s gang’s tastes in music, nail polish and arcane reading matter. In contrast, Mrs Reyes’ interior décor heavily features owls – which seem to be her familiars the way conjured imps are her daughter’s. Then the film escalates into sustained terror, without resorting to too much obvious horror business. Some of the best effects come from not overexplaining – Leah has her best friend Janice (Chloe Rose) come for a stay-over to talk through her worries. The girl see-saws between cynical and spooked, but happily beds down on the living room couch. The next morning, the terrified Janice has locked herself in the car. She insists she be driven home and refuses to talk about what she has seen or experienced to put her in such a state.
Director-writer Adam MacDonald has Pyewacket (sometimes flexible dancer Bianca Melchior) manifest variously in shadows or the rear of the frame – or perhaps in Leah’s mind. In the last act, Leah is told not to trust her ‘lying eyes’, and see-saws between fear for her mother and fear of her mother. Sometimes presented with contradictory evidence (a body on the ground, a calling voice) by her eyes and ears, she reacts hysterically in a way which seems likely to lead to tragedy. In a measured performance, Holden alternates between bewildered concern for a self-harming teenager and icy, contemptuous malice – while Munoz is impressive as a girl terrified of the consequences of her own feelings.