Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
September 2012

The Pact

Monster house

'The Pact' is an uneven balance of the generic and the surreal

The Pact
IFC Midnight
Director: Nicholas McCarthy
Screenplay: Nicholas McCarthy
Starring: Caity Lotz, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Casper Van Dien, Dakota Bright, Haley Hudson and Agnes Bruckner
Not rated / 1 hour, 29 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

I am of two minds about The Pact, just as it seems to be of two minds about itself. Its impulses are so often in the right place, but then it falls back on frustrating storytelling shortcuts that undermine its more surreal qualities.

The most aggravating of those is one I've mentioned before, one we've all seen ad nauseam - that's right, you know it, the Google Search scene! For as happy as I am that search engines exist, and for as often as I use Google, I will never forgive it for what it has done to movies. Where once a mystery would actually have to work for its clues, there is now a one-size-fits-all solution for any screenwriter that gets stuck trying to get from A to B.

Even when there were earlier variations of the same thing - pre-Google, it was library microfilm, or some obscure expert with every book ever written on the exact subject the protagonist was researching - at least there was a little effort given to finding information. Those scenes may have sometimes been cheap, too, but these days the whole discovery portion of a movie is reduced to a few typed phrases and a couple of clicks. Movies can rip out entire second acts.

What makes the Googling problematic in this case is that its discoveries and revelations bring everything down to Earth, as opposed to the film's more effective sequences, which are dreamlike both in their atmosphere and their lack of tangible sense. In one moment it plays like something along the lines of Takashi Miike's Audition; the next, it's like we're watching a typical CBS procedural. There's nothing necessarily wrong with the latter, but I think the film works much better as a surreal psychological exercise.

The Pact is centered around a pair of sisters, but the pivotal character is a house. Specifically, the childhood home of Annie (Caity Lotz) and Nichole (Agnes Bruckner). This house - a modest one-story place in the suburbs - is the temperamental type. It grunts, it moans. Its behavior - the electricity, the wireless signal - is erratic. It's prone to mood swings. It likes to break things. And sometimes it just snaps - at the expense of whomever may be lurking in its rooms at the time.

This is precisely what happens in the opening scene. Nichole is by herself late one night, having returned to her old home to make arrangements for her recently deceased mother's funeral. She's on the phone with Annie, who refuses to come. Their mother gave them a difficult and painful childhood, and Annie has no desire to revisit any of it. Not her mother and certainly not the house of horrors where she grew up. Nichole, apparently, is more forgiving.

Well, the joke's on her, as she's lured through a mysterious closet door and seemingly into an eternal black void, the door slamming shut behind her. Cut to black.

Nichole's sudden disappearance doesn't come as much of a surprise to either Annie or her cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins). Nichole is a recovering addict and she's made a lifelong habit of running away whenever things got tough. This feels like typical behavior.

After being notified of Nichole's disappearance, Annie has to come back home after all and ends up getting drawn into something of an elaborate mystery. Call it intuition, call it memory, call it supernatural intervention, but she begins to suspect the house has even darker secrets than she ever knew. It could have something to do with the image of a woman in a yellow dress - a woman that seems to have some connection to her mother. It could have something to do with a series of murders - perpetrated by a serial killer known as the "Judas," perhaps too blatantly spelling out the film's religious overtones - from years past.

Annie's curiosity gets the best of her, as she solicits the help first of a local police officer (played by Casper Van Dien), and then an old childhood acquaintance, Stevie (Haley Hudson, in an eerie but altogether silly, manic performance), who just so happens to be a medium of some kind. In any case, the house - or whatever figure that may inhabit it - doesn't want Annie getting too close to the truth.

Here's where my central problem with The Pact comes into focus. When Annie eventually does uncover what she's been looking for - or at least part of it - the ensuing segment really makes no literal sense. It does, however, make for an impressively sinister piece of horror filmmaking. There's an unapologetic bleakness to the revelation we discover, and director Nicholas McCarthy uses that to his advantage, imbuing Annie's moment-to-moment terror with a sense of underlying sadness.

Unfortunately, too much of the rest of The Pact can't live up to that promise, opting to fall back on more traditional attempts at explanation and resolution. I still admire a lot of what McCarthy attempts here; I just wish he would have followed through on it.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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