Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Nicholas McCarthy
Writer: Nicholas McCarthy
Producer: Ross M. Dinerstein
Stars: Caity Lotz, Haley Hudson, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Sam Ball, Mark Steger, Dakota Bright, Agnes Bruckner, Casper Van Dien
When her sister mysteriously disappears inside their dead mother’s home, a young woman uncovers a dark secret hidden in her family’s past.
Certain film critics are known for being heavier on personal anecdotes than they are on details related to the movie being reviewed. Generally, I avoid being similarly indulgent to the degree that readers would feel the need to voice their complaints, although personal background is sometimes necessary for understanding why someone might develop a particular point of view. “The Pact” has created a wide enough gap between those who think it is eerily brilliant and those who find it moves at molasses speed to warrant some probable perspective on why I fall into the former camp.
Growing up in the 1980’s, I used to terrorize myself with late night weekends spent watching “Tales from the Darkside” in syndication. Sometimes, I had to calm myself down with “Maude” reruns before finally mustering the courage to turn off the lamp and go upstairs to bed. This was because there was a large organ in the living room that was set just far enough away from the staircase to allow a slim person to hide behind. Going upstairs in the darkness meant traversing past this deep black shadow where who knows what could be lying in wait.
Even at age 8 or 9, I was too old to believe in monsters, so here is what my terrified little brain imagined instead: I used to think how diabolical it would be for an intruder to quietly break in, see a little boy watching a horror show on television, and suddenly develop a wicked grin on his face. Realizing my impressionable mind was conditioned for maximum fright, the intruder would sneak up the basement staircase, patiently hide behind the organ, and deliberately wait for me to turn off the light and walk past before grabbing my ankle and proceeding to do unspeakable things to everyone sleeping in the house. What better way to give a kid a heart attack first, right?
Left alone in the house another time, a friend of mine once suggested searching for secret passages. I told him that was a stupid idea. For starters, the house wasn’t that old. It certainly wasn’t labyrinthine either, and where on earth would a secret passage even lead to anyway? He insisted. I rolled my eyes and played along. And lo and behold, we found one. There was a hidden panel inside a closet that led to an empty crawlspace holding nothing more than the promise of tetanus if one squeezed in too far. Still, the idea that there actually was any secret space at all hidden inside the house blew my mind. From then on, I regularly envisioned all sorts of buried treasures and discarded secrets possibly hidden in unknown corners of the family home.
The preceding paragraphs are a roundabout way of explaining that a fascination for secret rooms and a fear of sinister presences hiding in dark corners are seeds planted deep in my head. And “The Pact” mainlines directly into that vein with its creepy fusion of slowly smoldering paranormal mystery and serial killer thriller.
Sisters Nichole and Annie have different ways of dealing with the death of their abusive mother. Annie would be just fine leaving those memories in the past and never setting foot inside her childhood home ever again. Unfortunately for her, that is not an option when Nichole inexplicably disappears and Annie is called upon to investigate. Annie’s cousin Liz also vanishes and things grow weirder still when a supernatural presence seemingly turns Annie into its own private ragdoll.
But “The Pact” is more than a haunted house ghost story. What Annie discovers as she delves into her mother’s hidden history is a secret branch of the family tree and a string of unsolved murders attributed to a serial killer known as Judas. Vengeful spirits and real-world maniacs subsequently collide in a genre-blending twist that provides a uniquely moody horror tale.
Without cobwebs, creaks, or Victorian parapets, “The Pact” manages to make a grim haunted house out of an average, modern home in suburban California. And with smooth camera movements and carefully timed rhythm, writer/director Nicholas McCarthy drapes a heavy pall of sickly dread over the entire production.
A midpoint scene involves Annie and a police detective returning to investigate the house. Annie’s hand shakes reticently as she puts the key in the front door and goes inside. She then locates a false wall discovered earlier on a blueprint and proceeds to tear it down until a secret door is revealed. The detective turns the knob and upon realizing the door is locked, he shoots a “what now?” look in Annie’s direction. Annie brushes by him and retrieves a key to unlock the door.
What’s interesting about a scene like this, and “The Pact” has several more just like it, is how McCarthy chooses to play it without words. It would have been easy, and unnecessary, to have the detective predictably exclaim, “the door is locked,” or to have Annie say, “hold on, I have a key.” To have all of the communication between them take place through action and glances instead keeps noise in the movie literally and figuratively minimal. As “The Pact” connects with a mind’s preexisting fears regarding the unknown and secrets dwelling in darkness, atmosphere is generated by regularly teasing the viewer’s imagination into filling in the quiet.
In his review of “The Pact,” Brian Collins of Horror-Movie-a-Day aptly associates Nicholas McCarthy’s film with Mike Flanagan’s “Absentia” (review here), and I could not agree more. Having seen a pair of movies from both filmmakers, they each demonstrate similar styles with the way they craft horror occasionally punctuated by jump scares, but otherwise squarely intent on delivering a psychological experience of understated terror. Tapping into childhood traumas and subconscious fears of the unknown is a less broad approach to horror than things jumping out and screaming “boo,” which is why such films end up with one camp firmly believing slow burn is boring and not frightening, and one camp expressing the exact opposite.
“The Pact” has a sluggish ramp-up where it risks disengaging from an audience uninterested in investing the patience it takes to feel the film’s full effect. It’s an understandable aversion for those requiring more in-your-face frights. Yet for those of us whose psyches always have a grain of uncertainty about what hides on the other side of a wall or inside a dark shadow, “The Pact” offers more than enough satisfying chills that can effectively burrow beneath one’s skin.
Review Score: 80