Monday 6 August 2018

We Don't Go Back #87: Pyewacket (2017)

From classic slashers to classic kids' TV. Where do you go from there? Contemporary indie horror I suppose. So! Let's look at Pyewacket.

Over the last few years I've had a few Other Places of Work, often concurrently, which I can tell you can be a bit wild and pretty tiring, as anyone who spoke to me at any time this July will be able to tell you.

Anyway, in more than one of those I've worked closely with teenagers, older teens, kids of 16, 17, 18. And one thing I observed is that the youth tribes have subtly shifted. And I mean, my experience isn't definitive in any way, but we've reached a sort of cultural tipping point, where interest in esoteric stuff has become significant enough once more that you have a significantly greater than zero chance of any teenager you know owning a set of Tarot cards, for example. And as far as I can tell, from my experience working with a couple of handfuls of provincial working class British teenagers – which is pretty limited, let’s face it – it seems that the kids who fifteen or twenty years ago would have been calling themselves goths or, later, emos, now appear to be trying witchcraft. And there isn’t the moral panic about it that there was in the 80s, and the social media are making this easier.
#witchesofinstagram, about 12pm, 30th July 2018.
For example, according to five minutes I spent with a calculator just now, posts tagged with #witchesofinstagram have been posted on Instagram just under 3,000 times a day between when I checked on January 6th for that Horse Hospital talk and July 30th 2018 (the time of writing). In January, I worked out that there was a new #witchesofinstagram post every seven minutes. But over the last six months or so, that average has dropped to one roughly every 30 seconds. And #witchesofinstagram is a really interesting hashtag, sociologically speaking, since it’s people posting their crystals and their spell stuff and their witch memes, but also their selfies, and if you post a picture of yourself on Instagram and tag it #witchesofinstagram, you’re saying, “I am a witch”. And it doesn’t actually matter how serious a statement that is. Although it’s easier for the older generation to harrumph about wannabes, the fact is that there’s no experimentation as passionate and sincere as teenage experimentation, and in the same way that actual Marxist-Leninism (actual Marxist-Leninism! I know!) is experiencing a real resurgence in the under 30s, what this means is that we’ve reached a point where it’s become a subculture again. And we’re going to have a generation of adults who aren’t so much witches, or even know witches, but who know people who know witches. What I mean is, it’s not a massive thing (#witchesofinstagram is still about 800,000 posts behind #eyebrowsonfleek, for example), but it’s big enough that people care.

And this is how you can have an American indie horror like Adam McDonald's Pyewacket, which is in some ways quite traditional in the way that it approaches witchcraft and teenage experience, and yet exactly fits with what’s going on now.
Teenager Leah Reyes (Nicole Muñoz, who I remember mainly as the ill-fated Christy Tarr in legit guilty pleasure Defiance) lives alone with her mother (Laurie Holden). Their relationship is a little fractious, partly because, well, Leah’s 16 years old, and your relationship with a 16 year old is going to be fractious, and mainly because Leah’s dad died not long ago, and neither Leah nor her mum are over it, and they’re not talking about it. So Leah comes in and her mum’s just crying on the bed, and can’t deal, and Leah’s handling it by going goth, except it’s the twenty-teens, so she and her mates are into witchcraft.

Leah’s mum decides that she needs a fresh start. Their house, she tells Leah, can’t allow her to heal.
Mrs Reyes: I’m trying, but I can’t breathe. This place feels like your father’s funeral. Every. Fucking. Day.
So Mrs Reyes unilaterally decides to move to a new place in the middle of the woods. And Leah feels utterly betrayed. She’s leaving her school, her friends. And her mum is like, I’ll drive you to school every day, I won’t make you move high school until next year, and tries really hard to be reasonable, and it gets worse and worse, until they have a huge, huge row, and mum says some stuff that she really shouldn’t, and Leah, distraught and raging, runs off into the woods with her witchcraft kit and calls up a spirit to kill her mum. And immediately regrets it.
In fact, Leah calls up Pyewacket, who was notoriously one of the supposed familiars Matthew Hopkins detected, which gives you your folk horror entry point right there, because you’ve got a modern person going into the woods and messing with the dark folklore in a remote yet well-trodden place, and witches are involved, so there you go. Except that Pyewacket also engages with the way in which things like witchcraft and folk horror are contemporary again, so you have this very traditional narrative where the kid messes with witchcraft and spirits and old-skool home-made DIY witchcraft and it goes wrong. And it also engages with the pop-culture thing, too, in a cunning sort of way, because of course Leah gets the summoning ritual for Pyewacket from a mass-market magic book that teenagers dig on, and the spirit isn’t even from the same country, let alone the same area, so in some ways the teens are appropriating someone else’s folklore. But it doesn’t matter because it works anyway. In fact, it’s probably more hostile.

And that’s a narrative I remember from things like the old Scream! comic (I don’t actually know if that story was in any given issue of Scream! – it's like decades since I've seen a copy – it just feels like it should have been).

Because you see, more or less the moment Leah gets back, her mum apologises for everything. And they open up to each other, and it’s the start of a big sea change in their relationship. They start to become close again. They start to try. Except that Leah’s conjured a spirit to kill her mum, and Pyewacket isn’t going to change its mind.
And that’s basically the last hour of the film, with Leah, guilt-ridden and increasingly panicky, trying to pretend nothing’s wrong, and then realising that there is, and not being able to figure out what to do, and looking for help, and her friends and the guy who wrote the magic book she used get tangled up in it, and meanwhile Pyewacket becomes more active and more malicious, starting with bumps in the night and moving on to actual visitations, and in the end Leah doesn’t know where to turn and something terrible happens.

It’s very well done, and beautifully played, especially by Muñoz and Holden, who sell grief, conflict and reconciliation; it doesn’t do anything particularly surprising, but it’s not what you do with a film like this, it’s the way that you do it, and it’s a decently scary film, and that’s all I’d want from a film like this, really. But Pyewacket is a now film, it’s a film that taps into Kids These Days and Their Fads, and better than that, it grounds it with some genuine and realistic feeling. The thing with folk horror is that it’s about the juxtaposition of the prosaic with the uncanny. And when something’s prosaic, it has to be real. The ordinary has to convince us, because if we don’t buy the ordinary, we can’t buy the uncanny. I think that’s where I stand with Pyewacket: it depicts true feeling, the feelings of folk, and that's properly how you get folk horror. Its ordinariness is its strongest virtue.

Want to read more of my film criticism? We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror is out now on Amazon Kindle (and print is coming soon!)

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