The Pact (2012)
Of all the film genres that have had a successful resurgence in recent years, the Haunted House Movie has proven most surprising, at least to me. I would have considered it a quintessentially old-fashioned slice of celluloid, like those hoary old comedies filled with white actors in blackface or playing Asian. The last decent haunted house movie I remember was THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973), starring my childhood hero Roddy McDowell. I suppose the likes of GHOSTBUSTERS and HOUSE in the 80s might count, but they hardly treated their subjects with the sobriety one would expect. But then came PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, and innumerable ghost hunting documentaries on television, and it seems as if the allure/fear of something inexplicable in our very homes is still strong in our minds.
Writer/director Nicholas McCarthy cut his teeth in Hollywood making documentary shorts on feature films such as ROBOCOP, STARSHIP TROOPERS, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and THE PRINCESS BRIDE. In 2011 he made an eleven-minute short film, THE PACT, starring Jewel Staite (TV’s FIREFLY) as a young woman alone in the house of her late mother, besieged by a ghostly presence. McCarthy, who pointed to his love of the horror films of Dario Argento and Val Lewton as an influence, received much acclaim at the 2011 Sundance Film festival, and on the basis of this secured funding to expand it into a feature film. But could a feature-length version of his short work?
THE PACT opens on Nicole (Agnes Bruckner, THE WOODS, KILL THEORY), at the home of her mother, who died several days earlier. She is finalising the preparations for the mother’s funeral, but is unable to get your young sister Annie (Caity Lotz, from TV’s DEATH VALLEY and MAD MEN) to come home for it. Annie is less than driven by the death of their mother, making mention of the woman’s harsh treatment of them, and the siblings argue with an uncomfortable realism that will ring true with anyone who has been with family at such times. Later. Nicole goes on her laptop to have a webchat with her cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins) and Nicole’s daughter Eva (newcomer Dakota Bright), who’s staying with Liz. Due to the shitty wi-fi in the area, Nicole has to carry her laptop around the house to keep the conversation with Eva going. When the connection returns, her daughter asks who the person is standing behind Nicole. Startled by this, Nicole sets aside her laptop and goes to investigate a dark room. As you do. To his credit, though the scares might be a little obvious at this point, McCarthy at least knows how to set the right tone and atmosphere
Annie arrives at the house, receiving messages from a frantic Liz that Nicole is missing. She finds a few things moved here and there, but nothing indicating anything wrong. Annie’s current mental state leads her to believe that her sister has simply abandoned her, like everybody else has done in her life. She has dreams of figures moving through the corridors of the house, a dwelling that is both sprawling and claustrophobic, and McCarthy channels a bit of Carpenter here with camera prowls and half-seen glimpses of shadowy things.
Annie remains in the house in the days following the funeral, and invites Liz and Eva to stay, not having been around long enough to have known Eva. When the sightings increase, and Annie wakes up to find Liz inexplicably gone, Annie grabs a knife from the kitchen to investigate, the door to the closet suddenly opens and an unseen force tries to pull her in! Annie manages to escape, only to hear Eva crying from within, and Annie does battle again with the invisible presence to rescue her niece, who has been oblivious to the spooky goings-on.
The local police detective, Bill Creek (Casper Van Dien, STARSHIP TROOPERS) is dubious about the story, and even starts to question Annie’s mental state, but Annie perseveres, struggling both with the mystery and with having to cope with the responsibility for her niece, and Lotz does a good job of portraying someone unused to such a mature task. Annie brings in a childhood friend Stevie (Hayley Hudson, FREAKY FRIDAY, KILLER PAD), a sensitive who quickly gets in over her head with all the spooky mumbo-jumbo in the house (another plus for McCarthy, for giving us a Medium Character who isn’t serene and has all the expositional answers, but is just an emotionally-wrecked woman who can barely keep it together when facing the dead). And when Annie does research on her mother and the house, she finds hidden rooms she never knew existed, people in family pictures she can’t identify, and she begins to question the true nature of the danger she’s facing there…
THE PACT is mostly successful with what it sets out to do: offer a genuine creepy, disturbing vibe reminiscent of the movies of the 70s. Caity Lotz plays the lead character as neither a wilting wallflower nor a kick-ass action heroine, but rather an ordinary, emotionally flawed young person, having to deal not only with emotional baggage but supernatural shenanigans. Casper Van Dien is looking a little worse for wear now than when he was lean and mean and fighting space bugs, but he lends a solid support. It’s short on gore but long on trying to build a supernatural menace, and though not as impressive as INSIDIOUS and ABSENTIA, it is successful in generating the time of old-style horror I remember watching. The movie’s hold on me only began to waver when Annie started getting clues to the mystery via the Google Maps on her smartphone – if the ghosts are that techno-savvy they could at least get us some more explicit texts, or a cool LOLcat or something.
Then there’s the movie’s third act, as McCarthy brings us a twist to the story. I won’t spoil it here, but at least it’s not the old “it was all a dream” or “she was dead all along” trope, and though some people who watched it felt it spoiled the build up of the first two acts, I thought it worked, and added a concrete horror to the supernatural, with some tense and realistic moments.
This was an impressive first feature from Nicholas McCarthy, and though THE PACT won’t dazzle with its originality, it’s a satisfying movie, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the director has to offer in the future.
Director: Nicholas McCarthy (& writer)
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Gore: 1 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien