Lots of potential but the clunky writing and bombardment of clichés end up overshadowing the better qualities.
After getting a warm reception at Sundance in 2011 with his short film of the same title, Nicholas McCarthy was able to get funding for a feature-length expansion of his short. One year later McCarthy came back to Sundance to premiere The Pact in their midnight line-up. I wouldn’t know how the two versions compare to each other (the short doesn’t look like it’s available to watch anywhere) but it feels like The Pact might have worked better as a short.
The film opens with a woman (Agnes Bruckner) arguing with her sister Annie (Caity Lotz) on the phone over their recently deceased mother. Annie refuses to help because of their abusive upbringing, forcing her sister to take care of everything at their mother’s house. Eventually Annie makes her way down to help out, but when she arrives her sister has disappeared without a trace. It doesn’t take long before weird things start happening at the mother’s house, but soon Annie’s cousin and niece come and visit. At this point Annie realizes something’s terrible going on when her cousin vanishes and she is literally thrown around the house by some sort of entity. Annie teams up with a cop (Casper Van Dien, sounding like Batman) and start to discover the true history behind her family and the house while looking for her sister and cousin.
It’s evident from the beginning that McCarthy’s strengths lie behind the camera instead of on the page. The house, an ordinary looking bungalow in California, feels like the kind of place anyone’s been in when visiting an old relative and McCarthy milks this feeling for all its worth. There are plenty of scenes in the first act where the camera follows characters around the house that, when someone pulls out the floor plan of the house in a later scene, it’s as familiar to us as it is to Annie.
The movie’s murky look, reminiscent of the kind of low-budget horror movies you would find at the video store, is one of The Pact’s strongest qualities. There’s an uneasy mood that comes from it, and it helps build up the slow burning quality to a lot of scenes in the first half (The fact that McCarthy builds certain scenes around cell phones, laptops and other pieces of technology is one of the more interesting parts of the movie. If you took those elements away, I wouldn’t be surprised if people thought this was made in the 1990s).
It’s unfortunate then that, with the good directorial talent on hand, the script comes up short. Almost everything in The Pact has been seen before, from the violent ghost that might actually be trying to help to the kooky medium and running across town to pick up clues. There’s a sequence where Annie contacts a girl she knew from high school (Haley Hudson) who might be able to talk to the dead that’s completely baffling from its after-school special setting of what looks like a crack house to the girl’s boyfriend/assistant who acts like he’s about to rip off someone’s head at any second. Once a surprising reveal is shown off in the final act (and the simplicity of this reveal is probably the movie’s scariest moment) things began looking up again until it dished out another set of clichés.
If Nicholas McCarthy is able to work on his writing a little more and try to avoid genre conventions as much as possible, he could be a horror director to look out for in the future. There is a lot of potential shown in The Pact, but the clunky writing and bombardment of clichés end up overshadowing the better qualities of the film.