Chris: Here’s a movie with some terrific ideas on how to create some wonderfully effective scares. It also has a decent (if derivative) broad outline of what should be a very solid horror movie plot. Early on, this feels like it will be a very good film. People go missing, lights flicker ominously, a suburban bungalow filled with religious iconography is filmed with a creepy, stalking eye.
Then things go off the rails, and not in a scary way.
After the jump, the monster in the closet is the director
Grandy: I also found this to be an uneven film. Early on, we’re treated to some interesting camera work as first time director Nicholas McCarthy follows a nervous Nichole (Agnes Bruckner) through her mother’s house trying to get a good wi-fi signal so she can talk to her daughter (who appears to be in the custody of a cousin). He repeats this sequence again with her sister Annie (Caity Lotz) as she investigates the very same house house some time after. I’m not sure I can exactly explain what I loved so much about these sequences, but I found I was rapt during them. Unfortunately, we don’t get anything else like those sequences. There’s nothing bad about how the rest of it is filmed, mind.
Chris: I was so excited for this movie after that opening sequence, absolutely. What I love the very most about The Pact is how McCarthy uses modern technology as methods to deliver horror movie scares. Such an amazingly creepy way to end a Skype session! He doesn’t stop there with tech, either. Google maps figures in, as does the LCD viewfinder of a digital camera. I loved how creative that was. One of the reasons, I suspect, that Ti West made House of the Devil (the last movie we covered) a retro period piece is that things like cell phones and always-on broadband internet can play hell with traditional horror movie plot tropes. I loved that McCarthy put modern tech to good use as a means to deliver scares.
Grandy: The sort of typical swelling horror music we’ve heard a thousand times before accompanies both Nichole’s trek through the house and then later a scene with cousin Liz (woken by a strange noise) culminating in a jump scare. Later stretches in the movie will eschew music altogether, relying on the inherent atmosphere to help sell scares (these stretches benefit from this approach, in my opinion). Annie will be tormented by an unseen assailant at times. Later what we thought was a ghost shows up in the flesh. Sort of? I don’t know if McCarthy was unsure of the movie he wanted to make, if he changed his mind, or parties intervened. But The Pact seems conflicted about itself. A good script and good performances can make even the most by the numbers movie look great. So let’s see how those things hold up here, shall we?
Chris: Sadly, they don’t. I was prepared to agree with you about the unevenness of this movie’s script, but now I think I disagree. “Conflicted” is you being very kind Grandy; this thing is really, really terrible. Like, freshman screenplay class dropout bad. It feels like a very good horror plot was roughly outlined, and then every story decision made from that point on was just astonishingly wrongheaded. Young fiction writers wanting to understand the importance of revision should see The Pact to understand what can happen without that process. McCarthy (who also wrote this) leaves all sorts of poorly explained plot holes throughout this. Just as frustratingly, at other times there’s too much detail that feels shoved into the movie with little thought or reason. The result is a sloppy film that treats its audience rather shabbily.
Grandy: The plot is just sort of routine. Turns out Annie’s mom used to chill (and them some) with a killer who chopped off the head of a mutual associate. Annie has unpleasant dreams about the man (who is typically seen crying) and her mother. Apparently the killer is why Annie’s mom used to lock her and Nichole in the closet and do all sorts of other nasty things to them. Stevie, the token psychic, uncovers a hidden room in the house where someone could spy on Nichole and Annie while they slept. There’s a hovering body (the mutal acquaintance) that shows up every now and again in various states of “not entirely in one piece” (one time being sawed down the middle). Annie can see it, just because. The killer eventually shows up and Annie shoots him. She gets custody of the kid.
Chris: That’s a good summary of that rough plot outline, and I agree that it could work, even without introducing much originality. It’s where the movie fills in around that where it all falls apart. For instance, one piece of information we’re supposed to glean has to do with eye color and genetics. The problem is that we see the eyes in question at the very beginning, briefly in the middle, and then the end of the film. I didn’t immediately make the connection until I re-watched those parts of the film. It turns out that there was dialogue with Cousin Liz and Annie to bridge all that (Liz: “Your mother didn’t have them, so your father must’ve.”) that was cut from the screenplay. Bad move. More ludicrously, the whole genetics and ancestry thing is a complete red herring as it is. This isn’t Chinatown. The plot doesn’t need the relationship and the eyes thing at all. The only reason it’s in the movie is…well, I don’t know, actually. It’s just useless exposition for exposition’s sake. That’s a problem pervasive to this script and even the direction. Those lingering shots in the first section of the movie on crucifixes and madonnas in the house? Eventually McCarthy forgets about them, and they serve no further purpose in the film. It’s typical of how messy this movie is. The Pact is a story with too much useless, cluttering detail sitting cheek by jowl with parts that don’t have nearly enough.
Grandy: Agreed; I also rewatched and picked up on the eyes thing the second time. I actually don’t mind that there’s nobody to say “Annie, Judas is your daddy!” but it’s a little too understated I would agree. As you note it’s really that this information appears to be of no relevance. Is he returned to claim his daughters? Are the horrors inflicted echoing throughout the years, feeding him? Who knows. The movie establishes no internal lore whatsoever for us to follow. There’s a ghost, there’s psychics, things just happen because. Further, there is no development whatsoever regarding Annie’s estrangement. Not just from Mom; it’s pretty clear she and Nichole aren’t on great terms and she’s never been part of her niece’s life. These things just become more plot clutter, which is unfortunately because they were places where the story could have been made stronger (think Mike’s fear of abandonment in Phantasm).
Chris: The shabbiness leaks in other places, too. A ghost has the power to drag Annie around, but seems powerless to do anything to Uncle Charles. My personal axe to grind is a part where Annie needs to google a never-caught serial killer named Judas (Why did the cops name him the Judas killer? We’re never given any idea, of course). The movie zooms in close enough on Judas’s wikipedia page…and I’m guessing anyone roughly familiar with their serial killer culture (which would seem to be a subset of horror movie fans) recognizes immediately the names of the first victims of the Zodiac killer. Yep, we’re on an actual wikipedia page here for a famous real-life killer, and the camera lingers here long enough for us to the see all the real-life Zodiac details: dates, names, and places. The movie attributes all this to “Judas”. Then Annie clicks a bibliography link for even more information and is taken to a serial killer culture website on Judas. Now the camera allows us to once again read the names of the Judas killer’s victims and they don’t match the wiki page that just referred her here. Neither do the dates or places. It’s shoddy stuff, the kind of thing that would make a film teacher stop the projector and tell a student “Fix that.” It didn’t get fixed here.
Grandy: We should talk about the actors. Shocking that we would harp on the performances of the actors in movies, right? There’s really only three noteworthy roles in this movie. There’s just Annie, Sheriff Creek, and Annie’s high school friend Stevie (Haily Hudson). Nobody else is around long enough for us to measure the performance, and that includes both Nichole’s daughter and the Judas himself. Caity Lotz seems capable, to me. She’s another actress who has done most of her work in TV. At times we silently follow her investigation into their mother’s past and she does a solid job, even as the plot meanders to and fro. Nothing spectacular; she isn’t really given a lot to do. Her best scene is probably when she flees the house after the attack only to realize she’s left the daughter inside. It certainly sells that Annie hasn’t been part of this family for a long time. Stevie is weird and sort of creepy. Casper Van Dien delivers an understated and decent performance, to my surprise.
Chris: OK, Caity Lotz has to remind someone else besides me of a younger, less haggard version of Lindsay Lohan, right? I mean, there’s a pretty uncanny resemblance. Perhaps it’s the freckles. She’s cute and does all right with this, I guess, but I wasn’t particularly moved. You’re right about Casper Van Dien, who looks unsettlingly like sheriff Aragorn in this. That’s really how I perceived the acting in The Pact: Sheriff Aragorn and Lindsay Lohan stumble through an uneven plot to try to get to the end credits.
Grandy: There was something interesting here but it never manages to blossom.
(The Pact is available to stream for Netflix subscribers, as well as for sale from the usual VOD outlets.)