Writer-director Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact goes about harvesting its many shivers the old-fashioned way—it earns them. What’s perhaps most immediately striking about this ghost story, which takes some pleasurably unexpected turns in acknowledging the breadth of its influences, is that for all its obvious modernity The Pact is at its heart chillingly, pleasingly retro. It moves to scare its audience through means which are often in direct contrast to some of the extremist trends (including unlimited effects budgets) currently at play in the horror genre. The Pact allows for the sweet release of screams that seem to start from the toes and jangle all the way up to and out of the throat, but where McCarthy is perhaps at his best is in the remarkable control he exhibits (this is his first feature) to seize the audience in a pleasurably persistent state of teetering on the precipice of a scream.
The Pact started life as a character-based short which the director screened at Sundance (I wrote about it briefly in January 2011), and it is this short, reconfigured and streamlined, that essentially remains the starting point for the feature, which tantalizingly expands on themes of repressed horrors, mysterious motivations and the blackest familial secrets at which the 11-minute film could only hint. Yet the feature-length The Pact marvelously sustains McCarthy’s obvious pleasure at teasing out mystery—it’s as if the movie is tacitly acknowledging what we all seem to understand is best about films like these, that the journey is often the scariest part. The director doesn’t entirely avoid the sense of letdown that is also commonplace once what’s really going on is revealed, but he does manage to generate questions that are just as much fun to chew on afterward. Thankfully, there is no psychologist played by Simon Oakland in the aftermath of The Pact ready and willing to explain it all for you.
Two sisters, Nicole Barlow (Agnes Bruckner), a drug addict who may not be entirely clean, and Annie (Caity Lotz), still angry over an apparently unhappy childhood, return to their nondescript San Pedro, California childhood home for a reluctant reunion upon the occasion of their mother’s death. After Nicole disappears during a Skype chat with her daughter while in the family home, and their cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins) also vanishes from the house the very next night, Annie is compelled to begin searching for clues not only to the whereabouts of the women, but to the strange occurrences now happening to her within its walls. What accounts for the compelling presence Annie feels inside the tiny house, which leads her to discover a secret room that she never knew of growing up? Annie gets some help from a detective (Casper van Dien) to find answers, but it’s her invasive nightmares and an encounter with a lonely, blind psychic (a marvelous turn by young actress Haley Hudson, seen above) that lead her to begin to believe that even her worst imaginings might not come close to encompassing the true horrors shuttered with the house’s modest, yet sinister interior.
The Pact is, on one level, a haunted house movie that manages to generate fear despite its absolutely mundane setting, which is a remarkable achievement. (And like that mysterious room Annie suddenly discovers after so many years, The Pact reveals itself, with palpable pleasure, to be something more complex and disturbing.) By the end of the film the audience has been guided so expertly through the geography of the house, by McCarthy, cinematographer Bridger Nielson and editor Adriaan van Zyl, that we feel every bump, nook and irregular cranny among its ostensibly welcoming, harmless surfaces, and each one glimpsed or lurched past suddenly has the potential to make us hold our breath or gasp for air. McCarthy’s cinematic vocabulary, enhanced no doubt by myriad genre touchstones which he accesses nimbly without the movie ever collapsing into a game of spot-the-references, gets a real workout here—he has a lot of fun with the idea of “things that go bump in the night,” tracing with almost fetishistic abandon the paths of several pairs of vulnerable feet and what they encounter in the shadows, but also touring the claustrophobic halls of the Barlow estate and slowly accruing a smothering sense of dread along the way. In comparison, a delight like Ti West’s The Innkeepers seems slight, as if it were squandering the obvious opportunity to generate fright within the halls of an old hotel that is far more picturesque and potentially foreboding than anything seen in McCarthy’s movie. In The Pact, even an eerily lit establishing shot of the exterior of a nondescript motel gave me the creeps.
McCarthy is clearly playing on a field designed by past masters like Dario Argento and John Carpenter, whose best movies know the value of delayed gratification as well as gratuitous shocks, but by doing so he risks The Pact being mistaken as too slack or uneventful by audiences weaned on horror movies that have been agitated into visual incoherence in the editing bay. However, this director has a couple of grand “gotcha!” moments in his bag too, which would not be as effective were they not so well-prepared for by the surety of style that surrounds them. (I consider myself a hearty veteran of horror and I found myself on the floor, safely behind a row of seats, more than once.) Perhaps the most cheering thing about the awful nightmares exposed in The Pact is how McCarthy avoids breaking faith with the audience-- for viewers of the feature and those of us who fondly remember the 11-minute film— and the degree to which he commits to the value of understating the secret of what's behind the door and beyond the walls. He’s lucky to have such a talented cast to back his vision too. Lotz has a very expressive face and uses it well to draw us into those moments where she has no dialogue, only her increasing disorientation and terror to rely on, and she plays well against van Dien’s surprising empathy—this sun-burnished, slightly bedraggled cop probably thinks he’s seen it all, and he’s certainly seen better days, but van Dien makes us believe that he’s willing to believe, even against his better instincts. But Hudson is the real find here. Her psychic, Stevie, is at once captivating, sympathetic, eerily, strangely beautiful and inexplicably sad. Hudson’s presence—she’s only in the film briefly, but she makes a hell of an impression-- made me think of Barbara Steele more than once.
At a time when it's so obvious that many filmmakers shrug off horror or, worse, use it cynically as a stepping stone to what they "really" want to do, a movie like The Pact emerges even more strongly as a valuable, solid and genuinely frightening addition to the tradition, but also as a gesture of faith, not only in the genre but in the audience's potential to respond to a movie that isn't designed simply as a cheap shock machine or a self-congratulatory exercise in deconstruction. The Pact, like its maker, is the real deal.
In the interest of full disclosure, Nicholas McCarthy is a friend and a fellow Horror Dad who I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for a couple of years now. Nick has an encyclopedic knowledge of horror, which makes his resistance to trotting out every bit of that knowledge in relentless nods to his beloved genre in The Pact even more salutary. (The nods that are there enhance the film, they don’t distract from it.) But he’s also a filmmaker who recognizes that his work is fair game for intelligent scrutiny and criticism, as well as the less thoughtful comments of those who just want to get their licks and kicks in first. In that spirit, I never felt the need to “like” the movie more in an attempt to avoid hurt feelings or unpleasant confrontation, and I feel sure that had my honest reaction been less enthusiastic he would have survived the momentary blast with no ill effects. It’s a great pleasure to be able to recommend The Pact, as another Horror Dad, Richard Harland Smith, did last week (and with much more panache than I have), as a genuine gem of a ghost story.
And I am not above taking advantage of my connections. Nicholas is on the East Coast promoting The Pact but was kind enough to answer a few questions via e-mail in anticipation of the movie’s Los Angeles premiere tomorrow night (Friday the 13th, thank you very much). I asked him about horror trends, growing up a fan of monsters and ghouls, and what it means to him to introduce the movie tomorrow night at Boston’s Coolidge Corner Theater.
DC: The Pact seems unusually confident, especially for a first feature, in the audience’s capability to respond to deliberate pacing, understated exposition and the cumulative effect of silence and atmosphere. It doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel, but instead to get back to the roots of what made horror movies scary before we learned to wink our way through them. Why is it that a lot of horror movies right now seem so desperate either to shock, or to “deconstruct” the experience of being scared?
NM: The choices I made with The Pact didn't come as a response to anything, they just came from my instincts as a filmmaker. I have nothing against shock, or deconstruction, or anyone else's choice of how to tell their story. But I've always felt that regardless of what seems new or hot, really what the genre comes down to is people wanting to be scared, and ideally, absorbed. Shock is part and parcel with horror, from those awesome pre-code horror movies up to recent movies like Hostel. The deconstruction of the genre I thought has been done best with comedy, probably starting with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Shaun of the Dead was probably the most fun dissection of the genre in a while, because it laid bare the conventions of a particular sub-genre and told a dramatically satisfying story.
DC: Colson Whitehead recently reported on his “psychotronic childhood” in The New Yorker, and it was a report that probably sounded familiar to a lot of us. Is there a key moment in your “psychotronic childhood” that you can point to as one that made you recognize what you wanted to do with your life?
NM: It was Spielberg's Duel, which I saw at about age 9, that really spun me. Here was a movie with very little means that painted a whole world and created a lot of tension. Then a couple of years later I saw Night of the Living Dead, and a couple of years after that, the original Evil Dead, both of those in 35mm. Each movie I liked better than the last, and they were getting cheaper and cheaper! That quality they all had of making something out of nothing energized me. I'll never forget how Evil Dead, a movie that looked so cheap and terrible that people were laughing at it, slowly turned its audience into putty. That was a power I wanted to have.
DC: You’ve said that The Pact is a movie full of cinematic influences. What would be one that might most surprise the more seasoned horror aficionado in the audience?
NM: There's a scene in a park that's actually directly modeled on Blow-Up. The second act of the movie really came out of a giallo influence, this kind of mystery plotting with fetishy close-ups of clues, and I put that Blow-Up reference in there because that movie feels like a big influence on that sub-genre. At one point Caity just stops walking, we're staring at her back, she doesn't move for a long time. Nothing at all is happening. But there's a sense that something will. That uncanny tension that Antonioni's movies all have is really impressive to me and I was trying to challenge it there.
DC: There’s a deliberate attempt in The Pact to lend a spirit of dread to the very mundane interior of the home in which the movie takes place. How did you go about getting so much atmosphere out of what appears to be so little?
NM: All of us behind the scenes had a real particular vision about the house and what we wanted it to be. My production designer Walter Barnett did incredible work. We both had these memories of houses just like that, and we agreed that they could not only be sad but sinister. My cinematographer Bridger Nielson understood we needed to make the light beautiful to expose that quality. Only through the contrast do you get this kind of amplification of that place.
DC: You’re introducing the movie Friday night, July 13, in the very same Boston theater where you grew up watching horror movies as a child. What are you most looking forward to about that experience?
NM: The journey of making this first movie has been pretty amazing and having it play a date at the Coolidge is a little bit of an end to it for me. There will be a couple more appearances and I'm interested in making sure the DVD/Blu-ray has some cool stuff, but after the next few weeks the movie will live on without me. Which I'm happy for, because I'm just about to make another one. I just hope someone comes out to the Coolidge who is scared by it and has the same kind of experience I had with so many films at that theater.
(The Pact is playing in New York City right now and opens in Los Angeles, Boston and other cities tomorrow, Friday, July 13. It is also available on iTunes, IFC Video on Demand and the PlayStation Network, among other online venues. But I highly recommend that your first experience with The Pact be in a theater, hopefully crowded with other horror fans who are ready to scream. Because you all will. - DC)