Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Dallas Hallam, Patrick Horvath
Writer: Dallas Hallam, Patrick Horvath
Producer: Ross M. Dinerstein
Stars: Camilla Luddington, Scott Michael Foster, Mark Steger, Amy Pietz, Suziey Block, Nicki Micheaux, Haley Hudson, Patrick Fischler, Caity Lotz, Trent Haaga
When a series of copycat murders and paranormal phenomena points to a possible return of the Judas Killer, a young woman discovers that a family secret connects her to the crimes.
One thing for which writer/director Nicholas McCarthy’s “The Pact” (review here) is best remembered is its distinct atmosphere of creeping fear fogging the edges of every frame. With his follow-up film “At the Devil’s Door” (review here) evoking a similar quality of slowly seeping tension, it’s clear that this particular style of haunted house horror owes a significant debt to McCarthy’s filmic fingerprint.
Something else his movie did was to end its individual arcs on mostly definitive notes. A quick sting before the end credits left the sequel door ajar, in a somewhat cheap fashion, although only by a slim crack.
Considering how uniquely haunting “The Pact” was and how narrow the options appeared for a second installment, “The Pact II” is as effectively managed a sequel as one could reasonably expect without the original creator returning to steer the ship. New franchise stewards Dallas Hallam and Patrick Horvath don’t find the same steady stride that “The Pact” had, but they get enough of the flavor in the pot that their take on the tone tastes as though it comes from the same world. Part of that sensation comes from coloring scenery with the same jaundiced patina that lined the original. Another part comes from the unfolding intrigue of a murder mystery linking two realities.
It’s only been one week since Annie Barlow put a bullet in the brain of her uncle Charles, a.k.a. The Judas Killer. That’s how long it took for another young woman to turn up dead in a murder that the LAPD and the FBI jointly suspect may be a copycat crime.
June Abbott works as a trauma scene cleaner, a custodian whose specialty is scrubbing suicide-induced grey matter off living room walls. She also moonlights as a Jack Davis-inspired comic book artist. Imagine June’s surprise when the woman she has been drawing from her strange recent visions turns out to be the same person whose blood now soaks her sponge. Things grow even odder when the special agent investigating the case warns June that she may be the new killer’s next target, based on a connection to Judas she never knew she had.
Although he is a police officer, June’s boyfriend David isn’t the one she turns to for dot connection when ghostly activity starts plaguing their house. June instead tracks down Annie Barlow, because June doesn’t think this is the work of a copycat killer at all. Despite being dead, June believes that Judas has somehow found a way to return, and he wants revenge.
As setups go, “The Pact 2” stretches believability only far enough to work out a sensible story covering the same mixture of paranormal poltergeist and tactile serial killing that its predecessor had. Melding both premises has become a hallmark of the series, even at just two entries, and it puts “The Pact 2” on a trajectory similar to how the mystery of “The Pact” played out. Good luck to another sequel in bridging that gap a third time without really coming off as forcibly shoehorned.
There’s no denying that the deeper the film goes in stirring up scares, the heavier it leans on typical tropes like flickering lights and unexpected reflections in medicine cabinet mirrors. Once the back half of the script moves its attention away from spooky mood moments and onto late-breaking exposition, the dun-dun-dun plot turns become telegraphed at worst and overlookable at best.
Preventing “The Pact 2” from being swallowed whole by routine, redundancy, and revelations wobbling on shaky narrative ground are performances that engage even if the momentum does not. Camilla Luddington has the right amount of screen presence to inflate June with texture when the screenplay has her more flatly defined. Recognizable character actor Patrick Fischler similarly gives a big boost of personality to an otherwise stereotypically obsessive FBI profiler with a sneer persistently hinting at being in on a secret that no one else knows.
Caity Lotz’s connection as Annie Barlow is wafer thin. In truth, the part she plays in the story could be accomplished by a new or different character entirely. Annie isn’t required. Though superfluous or not, no one is going to complain that a movie has too much Caity Lotz, especially when her screen time is as short as this.
Lotz’s elevated cameo is nowhere near as brief as Haley Hudson’s reappearance playing doe-eyed medium Stevie in another role no one would miss if the actress opted not to come back. Mark Steger also returns as Judas, and still gives Doug Jones a run for his money as the go-to silhouette for a frail-framed creep.
A less refined way to summarize how “The Pact 2” plays in relation to its predecessor is to think of the individual entries in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series. Some installments focused on black comedy. Some focused on dark terror. Some were certainly better than others. None of the numbered entries hit quite the same keys as Wes Craven’s original, and yet all still feel like they belong to the same saga.
“The Pact 2” doesn’t satiate every desire fans might have for a second chapter. It echoes much of the visual look and touches on the same themes that made the first movie a memorable chiller. It also steps onto well-worn paths that make it too closely comparable to formulaic horror-crime thrillers. Then again, it is no more possible for filmmakers Dallas Hallam and Patrick Horvath to fully duplicate Nicholas McCarthy’s methods and achievements than it was for James Cameron or David Fincher to mirror Ridley Scott’s. Keeping that in mind with regard to “The Pact 2,” expectations should be leveled accordingly.
Review Score: 75