Written and Directed by: Nicholas McCarthy
Starring: Caity Lotz, Casper Van Dien, and Mark Steger
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Some doors should never be opened.
Credit is due to The Pact for only looking like itís going to be yet another movie about folks sifting through family trauma while battling ghosts (theyíre haunted by their pasts and spirits, you see). Donít get me wrongóit has a lot of that, but it also aims at something else. At this point, any ghost story that can offer any sort of added intrigue or wrinkles is welcome, unless it involves goddamn zombie ghosts. I bet someoneís already pitched that to SyFy.
The first surprise comes rather early, when weíre introduced to Nichole Barlow (Agnes Bruckner), a young lady mourning her motherís recent passing. During a phone conversation, her sister Annie (Caity Lotz) chides her for the sentiment and cryptically reminds her of the trauma the two endured at the hands of their mother. Annie insists she wonít be attending the funeral and canít even believe Nichole bothered to return to their childhood home. Later that night, Nicholeís Skype conversation with her young daughter is cut short when she hears a strange noise emanating from another room; upon checking the disturbance, she mysteriously vanishes (is there any other way to vanish, though?), thus forcing Annie to return home and sort things out.
So The Pact has to get a little Psycho out of its system before it really gets going, which is both neat and a little disappointing since Brucknerís role isnít as prominent as you might expect. I donít know why Hollywood didnít try harder to make her career happen, but Iím glad sheís still doing steady genre work, even in small doses like she is here, where her disappearance is the first sign that The Pact isnít hewing to the typical haunted house narrative and has a few tricks up its sleeve.
Granted, itís still easy to assume itís still going to be pretty standard issue once it gets past that first jolt. Once Annie enters the scene, the film feels quite familiar: itís oppressively somber and follows the younger sisterís quest to unravel the buried secrets of her childhood. Fittingly, Lotz is low-key and natural in a role that mostly has her looking attentively as she makes internet searches and creeps around her motherís house gathering evidence. At first, sheís naturally skeptical that anythingís wrong and assumes Nichole has simply taken up the family tradition of bailing when times get toughóboth of her parents did it, after all, so itís not a stretch that sheís abandoned her own daughter and skipped town during her motherís funeral (nevermind that she was just pleading for Annie to attend the funeral herself, I guess).
The attempt at familial drama adds a slight human dimension the proceedings, especially when Annie's cousin also disappears, thus leaving her to care for the young daughter. Thereís a natural sense of urgency there, as it seems like some malevolent spirit (perhaps the mother herself) is haunting the house and looking to swallow the entire family. The Pact is steeped in the usual language of ghost movies: unsettling bumps, bizarre imagery (the ghost here likes to appear on Googleóahem, GlobalóMaps searches), and an unseen force that enjoys flinging people about the house (ghosts need to take up new hobbies). Save for Annieís strange visit to a high school friendís house (which is obnoxiously drowned out by loud music and video games), the film is another quiet, solemn, slowly-burning encounter with the supernatural.
And then it just glides into another mode altogether; itís not exactly a hard left turn, but itís quite a diversion. While Annieís detective work leads her to more genre familiarity, its integration into her familyís history is quite twisted. (If youíre the type who reads reviews without having watched a film and are wary of spoilers, thereís plenty of Ďem from here on out, so hereís your chance to turn away.) It turns out that the ghost is leading Annie to a notorious but long abandoned cold case involving a serial killer that terrorized the Pacific coast for decades. What was once a stock haunted house story cleverly morphs into a small-scale procedural, with Annie, a cop (Casper Van Dien), and a strung-out medium (Haley Hudson) attempting to piece together a supernatural puzzle.
Itís an engaging twist that admittedly changes the filmís dynamic a bit, as itís suddenly more of a pulpy thrill-ride rather than an examination of grief and familial turmoil. Given that The Pact wasnít quite excelling in the latter mode (itís certainly fine but unremarkable), the change of pace is welcome, particularly since it yields the filmís most enduring image and performance in Mark Stegerís enigmatic weirdo. Glimpsed throughout the film as a mysterious, weeping man, he fully emerges during the final act, where he slithers and slinks throughout Annieís house, calmly exuding an almost preternatural sense of menace.
Considering the initial premise, itís almost hard to believe that the film climaxes with a bit out of a slasher movie (right down to the heroine fending off the psycho with a clothes hanger while hiding in a closet), but itís a fairly gripping finale. Had director Nicolas McCarthy injected it with more of a pulse, it might have been downright riveting; instead, heís a bit too committed to the somewhat airless, suffocating aesthetic, so it never feels like the film ever completely takes off. With the exception of that misstep, The Pact is a carefully constructed, nimbly told little thriller. When it sacrifices its thematic richness at the altar of serial killer junk, it doesnít just manage to remain effectiveóit somehow becomes more compelling without feeling like a cheap switcheroo gimmick. That said, I have no idea how the upcoming sequel is going to operateóitís apparently a direct follow-up involving different characters, per reportsóbut Iím all for allowing this filmís mythology to keep surprising me. Buy it!
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