Written & Directed by: Nicholas McCarthy
With the success of the Paranormal Activity franchise, haunted house and supernatural films are back in vogue. Burned out on a decade where horror consisted of detailed torture and gristle strewn across the four corners of the screen, audiences have reconnected with the simpler chills derived from fear of the unknown.
Annie (Caity Lotz) returns home to bury her estranged mother. Still bitter and troubled from a strict, abusive upbringing under her mother's thumb, Annie has to be coerced into returning by her sister Nichole (Agnes Bruckner), a single mother struggling with her own demons. Upon arrival she's met by her cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins) who has Nichole's daughter in tow. Nichole's disappeared, yet Annie isn't concerned. She chalks it up to just another one of her sister's episodes when she gets too stressed out or overwhelmed.
Of course when they return to the mother's home Annie realizes how wrong she is. The presence of something or someone else being there with them hangs heavy in the air. Annie finds herself under attack by an unseen presence in the middle of the night. In one of the best sequences of The Pact she's hurled in all directions and barely makes it out with her niece in tow. Liz has gone missing with no trace of her left behind.
The location works in The Pact's favor. The recession removed the haunted house picture from the expansive gothic mansions of the one percenters down to Main St, Everytown USA. He mother's house is little more than a GI Bill tract with paneled walls and wallpaper that went out of style fifteen minutes before the backing dried out. McCarthy has a way of filming the home so that no quarter is given. It's a cramped, claustrophobic atmosphere that allows the viewer to feel every flickering light and passing shadow.
The Pact also makes good use of modern technology to heighten the scares. Cell phones, Skype, digital imagery and GPS devices all play a hand in unfurling what's behind the events in the home. Smart phone screens flicker to life in the presence of ghostly matters and spectral images point towards clues. The opening scene featuring a Skype chat with Nichole and her daughter culminates in an absolute chilling line from the little girl that's delivered in such a sweet and innocent matter it made the hairs on my arm stand up.
Lotz carries the bulk of The Pact on her shoulders and she's more than up to the task despite a script that makes it difficult for the audience to feel empathy for her throughout much of the running time. Surly and antagonistic with a massive chip perched on her shoulder Annie keeps her distance from everyone, including those looking to help her out. This standoffishness extends to the audience, making it tough to get a bead on the character early on. However as the film continues it becomes clearer why Annie acts the way she does. Lotz also injects hints of vulnerability into her character as things progress, making it easier to root for her.
Where The Pact falters is its second act. The focus shifts from the supernatural to more of a “whodunnit?” where Annie tires to unravel the mysteries surrounding her mother, secret rooms in her home and a deceased woman who keeps turning up in photographs. Casper Van Diem shows up just to remind everyone that Starship Troopers was a very long time ago. Seriously, I can't think of anything his grizzled cop character adds to the mix. He doesn't push the plot forward or take part in any reveals Lotz' character would not have discovered through her own investigation.
The film's climax redeems itself by kicking up the heebie jeebie factor and using the tight confines as a great source of tension. Audiences looking for old school atmospheric scares without an emphasis on gore would do well to check out The Pact.