BOO-ya!

Some screams rise from the throat, others from the gut. Nicholas McCarthy’s new fright film, THE PACT (2012), localizes horror down deep in the belly, in memories repressed and long-lived, in secrets and lies, in myths created and clutched to obscure and obliterate original sins.

For the sake of full disclosure, I must admit that Nick McCarthy is a friend of mine. You will recognize his name as one of the HorrorDads, a group of fear-loving fathers who get together from time to time to talk about our kids and the spookshows we love and how those seemingly incompatible worlds (that which hopes for the best, that which imagines the worst) so often share the same headspace. I may be accused of cronyism for giving THE PACT a good review but those who know me well know that, for all my faults, I shoot from the hip. I have lost friends because I’ve been unwilling to brand mediocrity as good work; my feeling has always been that as artists we owe one another one thing — the truth. And so in the spirit of veracity, I am now prepared to tell you that THE PACT is one of the best ghost movies I have seen in a very long time. Uninterested in the “found footage” gimcrackery that has become the rule rather than the exception for ghost movies post-PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007), THE PACT isn’t afraid to be cinematic, isn’t afraid to be artistic, isn’t afraid to care more for its characters than for what happens to them. The film opens in the wake of the death of San Pedro senior citizen Judith Barlow and an uncomfortable reunion for her adult daughters, reformed drug user Nicole (THE WOODS‘ Agnes Bruckner) and Annie (Caity Lotz, from MTV’s DEATH VALLEY), who remains embittered about their unhappy childhood in their two-bedroom family home on Claremont Avenue. When Nicole disappears in the middle of a video chat with her own daughter and cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins) vanishes the following night, Annie is forced to play detective. With little help forthcoming from the San Pedro Police Force (in the person of STARSHIP TROOPERS‘ Casper Van Dien), she digs through old papers and documents, unearthing blueprints of the Claremont house that reveal it is not a two-bedroomer but a three-bedroomer… leaving Annie to wonder where is the third room? And who, or what, is in there?

Some early reviews of THE PACT (written by critics whose chief concern seems to be writing the earliest reviews) have carped that Nick does nothing new with the subgenre… and to that I’m inclined to agree (in part). There’s no hook to THE PACT. There’s no twist, no One Big Thing that can be slapped on a poster and trumpeted as the redefinition of horror. THE PACT is a movie, not an event; it’s a story about people, about anger and shame, revulsion and curiosity, about obsession and investigation — and confusion and mystery rewarded with horrible certainty. Expanded from Nick’s short film of the same name, the movie leaves you guessing for most of its running time as to what in hell is going on and what the title might mean, suggesting as it does an arrangement, an understanding that binds people, perhaps even beyond the point of death. It’s a relief to get out from under the shadow of the Twisty Twist (aka, The Shyamalan) — for too long, horror has drifted from its pulp roots toward cinematic brinksmanship, growing overdependent on gimmicks (and not cool William Castle gimmicks either). For a ghost movie to compete in the marketplace now, it has to go big or go home, it has to deconstruct the horror genre, be state of the art, paradigm-smashing, rewrite the book, work outside the box, push the envelope and other things that only movie company executives think about. Remember what Big Box Thinking did to Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING (1963) in 1999? I was very excited to see James Watkins’ THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012) recently but grew increasingly frustrated as the thing unspooled, so over-produced as it was, so chockablock with stuff, so busy, so fussy, so pimped out and tricked out and lipstick-pigged (why put one wind-up cymbal-playing monkey in the creepy nursery when you can have seven?) that you never had a chance to feel any of your own emotions, so desperate was the movie to work you from the start. I had a better time with Ti West’s THE INNKEEPERS (2011) but apart from two spirited (heh!) lead performances by Sara Paxton and Pat Healy, the movie had no ideas, no purpose. I appreciated its attitude but it didn’t challenge or scare me, not once, and I never once wondered what existed beyond the frame, which seems to me to be the purpose of a ghost movie.

THE PACT gets it right and makes a dumpy So-Cal suburban shack far spookier than THE INKEEPERS’ haunted hotel. Set at Christmas, its mise-en- scène festooned subtly with joyless signifiers of a holiday that has long since failed to bring peace to anyone, the film charts psychic scorched earth in the dark hallways and underlit common rooms. Well-cast as sisters, Caity Lotz and Agnes Bruckner are not your standard slasher flick will o’the wisps but rather disarmingly muscular, hard-boiled young women in tats and tank tops whom circumstance has kicked from the middle class into the working class. There’s no love lost between the siblings but when one disappears the other must search, which brings Annie into contact with a blind, childlike psychic (Haley Hudson in the film’s best performance) and her gruff protector (Sam Ball, who appeared in Nick’s original short, albeit in a different role). Ball’s character, Giles, is etched in distinctly criminal lines, depicted initially as a potential domestic abuser, sandpaper coarse. He seems a right creep, from whom you want to tell Annie to run, but in time his hostility is revealed as a reflection of his love and concern for his praternaturally gifted lover (or sister – who knows?!), which sets in motion the idea that things in THE PACT are not what they appear to be, be they a seemingly mundane hallway closet or the intentions of a supernatural entity who would just as soon pick you up and throw you as spell out things on the Ouija board.

Horror movies in general, and ghost movies in particular, are like balloons inflated by our shared reservoir of dread and kept aloft by hokum. Any ghost movie worth its salt is a machine, built to a specific purpose, and THE PACT is no exception — it knows how to lead your eyes to the left while it sneaks a hand up to grab you on the right. (Its first deliberate jolt went through me like a hollow-point.) Midway through, there’s a scene of beautifully ratcheted tension as the psychic’s consultation goes terribly… well, right, I suppose, in that she reaches the party to whom she is speaking. Without a stroke of CGI, and employing purely practical effects, Nick wrings fear from artful filmmaking (kudos too to cinematographer Bridger Nielson) and the effect of people’s voices torqued by abject fear to a discomfiting timber. Key to the equation also is Ronen Landa’s austere, sorrowful score, which relies heavily on low notes scratched out on a cello, music that, like true terror, rises from the diaphragm. In returning to first principles, in simplifying, THE PACT does seem novel against a rising tide of copycat innovation, mainly in its resolve to go old school, to go campfire, to go flashlight ‘neath the chin. To say more might be to do the film a disservice, to over-sell it and suggest that it is the rollercoaster ride that every horror movie aspires to be nowadays. It is not that, choosing instead to be a true carnival haunted house ride, a ghost train, using not adrenaline as its motor but curiosity and expectation, while it waits in the dark to pinch you and make you scream from the gut.

0 Response BOO-ya!
Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 29, 2012 10:15 pm

So, I see this on Amazon as a “pre-theatrical release” rental, meaning I can rent it for the price of a movie ticket, which is fine, but if it’s going to be playing in theatres, I’d rather see it there first. I can’t remember if Nick said it’s getting a wider theatrical release or not. Either way, I can’t wait to give it a look (although I will wait if it means seeing it in the theatre).

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 29, 2012 10:15 pm

So, I see this on Amazon as a “pre-theatrical release” rental, meaning I can rent it for the price of a movie ticket, which is fine, but if it’s going to be playing in theatres, I’d rather see it there first. I can’t remember if Nick said it’s getting a wider theatrical release or not. Either way, I can’t wait to give it a look (although I will wait if it means seeing it in the theatre).

Posted By Cary Watson : June 29, 2012 11:24 pm

Wow, I have to see this now. In a variety of ways The Pact sounds like an Australian film called Lake Mungo released in 2008. It’s also a ghost story, and it uses the faux doc playbook, but instead of going for cheap scares it morphs into a powerful drama that happens to include a ghostly element. It never got any distribution outside of film festivals and there were plans for a Hollywood redo, but that seems to have gone nowhere. Here’s a link to my review of it:

http://www.jettisoncocoon.com/2011/07/film-review-lake-mungo-2008.html

Posted By Cary Watson : June 29, 2012 11:24 pm

Wow, I have to see this now. In a variety of ways The Pact sounds like an Australian film called Lake Mungo released in 2008. It’s also a ghost story, and it uses the faux doc playbook, but instead of going for cheap scares it morphs into a powerful drama that happens to include a ghostly element. It never got any distribution outside of film festivals and there were plans for a Hollywood redo, but that seems to have gone nowhere. Here’s a link to my review of it:

http://www.jettisoncocoon.com/2011/07/film-review-lake-mungo-2008.html

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : June 30, 2012 2:37 am

Cary, I did think of Lake Mungo when I was thinking about this movie after I saw it yesterday! Similar in tone (of course, Lake Mungo does the documentary thing, which is the cousin to the found footage thing) and lack of “bigness.”

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : June 30, 2012 2:37 am

Cary, I did think of Lake Mungo when I was thinking about this movie after I saw it yesterday! Similar in tone (of course, Lake Mungo does the documentary thing, which is the cousin to the found footage thing) and lack of “bigness.”

Posted By changeling : June 30, 2012 5:27 am

Great to hear some deep belly screamin’:):):)

Posted By changeling : June 30, 2012 5:27 am

Great to hear some deep belly screamin’:):):)

Posted By Jenni : June 30, 2012 1:51 pm

The actress you pictured on the main photo for your post looks like the actress who plays Jane on Breaking Bad, which I am catching up on. Did your friend Nick write the screenplay or direct?

Posted By Jenni : June 30, 2012 1:51 pm

The actress you pictured on the main photo for your post looks like the actress who plays Jane on Breaking Bad, which I am catching up on. Did your friend Nick write the screenplay or direct?

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : July 1, 2012 1:30 am

Nick wrote and directed The Pact. He’s a triple threat – he can write, direct, and see dead people.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : July 1, 2012 1:30 am

Nick wrote and directed The Pact. He’s a triple threat – he can write, direct, and see dead people.

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