The Pact, the feature directing debut of Nicholas McCarthy, is a refreshing and effectively scary horror movie hybrid, a gimmick-less thriller produced in an age when gimmicks are pounding the genre to death.
McCarthy has crafted a lean, no-nonsene, low-budget indie flick. It is not comprised of phony “found footage.” It’s not shot in the first person. It’s not a reboot of a beloved franchise. It’s not in 3-D, nor would 3-D enhance any of the frights. It’s not a sequel. And, spoiler alert I suppose, it doesn’t have any vampires nor zombies.
That all said, The Pact shouldn’t be particularly praised for what it is not, but for what it is. As McCarthy proven with his previous short films, such as Chinese Box and a short version of The Pact from which the feature is derived, he is particularly good at establishing mood and atmosphere, giving an unsettling edge to otherwise mundane situations.
While The Pact takes place in sunny San Pedro, California, the city has a musty, smoky, shadowy air as two estranged sisters — Nichole (Agnes Bruckner) and Annie (Caity Lotz) — return to their cruddy suburban home following the death of their intensely abusive mother. Or, at least we’re led to believe she was extraordinarily abusive. No details are ever given, except that the girls may have been locked in a closet once or twice during their childhoods. Did the girls actually have a battered childhood or do they just unnecessarily zero in on the bad stuff the way many adult children do?
Anyway, Nichole arrives at the house first and sets about getting the funeral affairs in order. The opening section of the film with Nichole is more or less a recreation of short film version of The Pact. A supernatural presence slightly bedevils Nichole as she calls her sister and tries to convince her stubborn sibling to come to the funeral. Chills blow across the back of Nichole’s neck, her Internet connection fizzles and the closet door opens by itself.
The next day, Annie — a motorcycle riding tough gal with permanently pursed lips — relents and comes home only to find that Nichole has vanished. Post-funeral for Mom, cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins) also disappears in the house during a sleepover. And, of course, the police — represented solely by Detective Bill Creek (Casper Van Dien) — doesn’t quite believe her that something supernatural is going on, even after she discloses the story about the poltergeist that whipped her around the house like a dishrag caught in a tornado.
In his clever and stylish short films, McCarthy very successfully held back the core elements of their central mysteries to leave audiences in a pleasant state of befuddled intrigue. But now, with a full 90 minutes at his disposal, he has decided to ditch that approach and explicitly spell out the horror of it all.
So, about halfway through the film, the mysterious supernatural elements slowly start to give way to more concrete thriller plot machinations. McCarthy ties both sides together in a logical and believable way, so it’s not a jarring turn of events. However, there is one big mid-way revelation regarding Annie’s memory — or lack thereof — of her childhood home that’s a bit strenuous to hurdle over, yet forgivable as long as one is willing to go along for the ride.
McCarthy’s off-beat style here is also somewhat reminiscent of some of David Lynch’s tropes. The expansion of a simple mystery to a grander conspiracy is not unlike the forward thrust of Blue Velvet. Plus, there’s the casting of several female ingenues, a strong reliance on a disconcerting sound design, which is extremely evocative and effective here; as well as an excursion into a den of iniquity that’s as jarring as the jaunt to One-Eyed Jacks in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. (It’s also nice during that excursion that frequent McCarthy acting collaborator Sam Ball makes the first of several appearances.)
The Lynchian elements, though, are just part of McCarthy’s overall arsenal that he throws into The Pact. In many ways, the non-showy hybrid nature of the film is evocative of lower-budget exploitation pictures of old, making it a refreshing, enjoyable, and scary experience.
Watch The Pact horror movie trailer: