The death of her abusive mother brings Nichole (Agnes Bruckner) back to the family home she and her sister Annie (Caity Lotz) thought to have left behind for good. Annie’s even less happy with going back than Nichole, and only some fine sisterly pressure convinces her to return at all, and much later than Nichole does.
When Annie arrives “home”, Nichole has disappeared into thin air after – as the audience knows – some rather disquieting things happening there. Annie assumes Nichole, with her history of drug use and disappearing acts, has just fallen back into old habits, leaving her sister alone to deal with a house and a funeral she only thought of going to for her sister’s sake, and her cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins) to take care of her little daughter Eva (Dakota Bright).
But when Annie meets her Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins) and Eva (Dakota Bright), at her mother’s funeral. she isn’t quite as convinced of Nichole’s disappearance having a comparatively harmless explanation anymore. Liz argues Nichole would never have left her daughter alone this way; after all she has turned her life around for her.
Because Annie is more than a bit freaked out about staying at her mother’s place another night, she invites Liz and Eva to stay the night with her. At night, everyone is woken by strange noises, and now it is Liz’s turn to disappear while Annie has an encounter with an invisible force that can only be explained by supernatural agency. She barely manages to get out of the house with Eva before whatever happened to Nichole and Liz can happen to her too.
When Annie goes to the police with her story, the part about poltergeist phenomena does not exactly improve her chance for being taken seriously about anything else she says. Only Bill Creek (Casper Van Dien), a cop who knew Nichole – and one suspects also knows something about the family history – is willing to actually listen to her. Creek isn’t willing to believe in any of that spooky stuff, but at least he’s still taking Annie seriously enough to help her in the few ways actually in his power. However, if Annie wants to find out where her sister and her cousin went, and what is haunting her mother’s house, she will have to do most of the investigating alone and with a messed-up sensitive named Stevie (Haley Hudson) she knows from her high school pointing the way. Annie might just find some terrible family secret hidden nearly in plain sight.
Say what you will about (or against) the last decade in horror movies, but it has – probably via the successes of Japanese cinema in this regard – brought about a minor renaissance in movies about hauntings and ghosts, some of which, like Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact, can stand their ground next to any movie in that particular sub-genre you’d care to mention.
The Pact is a brilliant example of a movie closely concentrated on creating a mood of dread and fear very close to the kind of fears I remember too well from my childhood. The movie manages to create a feeling of tension even though it isn’t a permanent barrage of Completely Shocking Things™. There are some truly shocking and some truly creepy things happening throughout the movie, but there’s never the feeling any of them are in the movie because it needs to include a shock every ten minutes. Rather, everything here happens for a reason closely related to the film’s plot and the film’s mood, two elements as organically entwined as possible.
McCarthy’s direction is very stylish (the Internet tells me of Argento but also Val Lewton productions as an influence, and I believe her in this case), yet he never gets too flashy. McCarthy instead opts to put his stylistic abilities exclusively into the service of creating the film’s particular brand of tension. For most of the time, the camera glides through the cramped and claustrophobic spaces of Annie’s mother’s house, looking over Annie’s shoulder, lingering on blackness and the place’s quotidian and bleak interior until they become threatening in their near normality.
I also love how willing McCarthy (also responsible for the script) is to not outright state a lot of what is going on with his characters and their lives but to subtly show it through details of the interiors they move through and Caity Lotz’s body language (insert gushing praise about Lotz’s performance here). It’s not that the film is vague about anything, The Pact is just not the kind of film feeling the need to spell everything out an attentive audience will understand in other ways.
It’s all part of the film’s overall spirit of tightness and concentration, virtues it doesn’t even leave behind when its plot later on takes a turn towards a somewhat different type of horror film than it initially seemed to be, fortunately without doing the boring “look at this surprising twist!” routine. What could have been flabby and digressive in less capable hands feels organic and logical here.
Finally, it’s also worth mentioning – seeing as this is a horror movie – how creepy the film is throughout, how successful The Pact is at combining Annie’s struggle with her past (her own childhood fears), the idea that however horrible one’s past was, there might always have been something more horrible lurking unseen just a (literally and metaphorically) thin wall apart, and the more general images of childhood fears it conjures up in pictures that seem archetypally effective – and willing to be strange if it suits the film – to me.
That, dear reader, means I was freaked out more than once during the course of The Pact, which is the sort of compliment I can’t give many horror films.