The Pact

The Pact

***

Reviewed by: David Graham

The haunted house yarn is once more enjoying its periodical popularity thanks to sleeper hits like Insidious and the Paranormal Activity films, but it can be difficult to stand out from the crowd in a genre that's the cinematic equivalent of your annoying little brother shouting 'Boo!' in your ear every five minutes. There have however been several offerings of late that have managed to distinguish themselves by working a more human, emotional angle than might be expected, from The Awakening to Cassadaga and indeed this week's The Innkeepers. The Pact deserves credit for attempting to join these ranks when it could have settled for simply ticking trendy boxes; while it's not entirely successful, it's certainly a solid expansion of promising writer and debut director Nicholas McCarthy's own short.

Returning to a family home riddled with bad memories of a dysfunctional childhood, Annie's not surprised to find that her ex-junkie sister isn't there to help take care of their mother's funeral. Lumbered with looking after her niece Eva in the wayward sister's absence, Annie's cousin Liz agrees to keep her company in the creepy little house, only to vanish into thin air when the trio experience a night of supernatural attacks which send the remaining pair running for their lives. Enlisting the help of a skeptical detective and a disturbed psychic, Annie reluctantly returns to the house to try to uncover its secrets, finding that the unassuming little bungalow where she grew up may be an even darker place than she remembers.

Copy picture

Despite an occasionally clunky script and an undeniably derivative feel, The Pact builds tension pretty skilfully right from the start, making its kitsch suburban setting a place of claustrophobic dread through tight camerawork and an ominous bass-propelled score. There are several suspense set-pieces that would make early Polanski devotee Ti West proud, the minimalist credits even bearing a similar Eighties typeface to his 2009 hit House Of The Devil. Like the aforementioned Cassadaga, McCarthy hits the audience hard and early with some bone-rattling ghostly goings on, only to gradually change tack to build a mystery that takes the story into another genre entirely.

As in most genre mash-ups, this approach makes the film an absorbing, unpredictable experience but also threatens to dilute its bread and butter scares. The dissolute plot strands don't always complement each other, but McCarthy does at least know how to exploit them to throw the audience off-guard, leading to a few shocks that transcend the usual music-cue-dependent frights. He throws in plenty of well-orchestrated examples of those too, as well as a good few hair-raising moments that cheekily toy with technology in logic-defying tribute to J-horror, but the mixture of elements may disappoint those looking for a more straight-up spook-fest, despite the occasionally imaginative take on several well-worn cliches.

Some elements of the characters are more thoughtfully developed than is often the case, with Annie in particular being a nicely balanced heroine with an appealing vulnerability beneath her flinty tough-girl exterior. The script rarely falls back on unnecessary exposition, leaving the audience to join the dots as to how such an upsetting situation must be affecting her inside. While the otherwise exciting climax requires a frustrating suspension of disbelief, the denouement resolves everything smartly enough to leave some ambiguity lingering in the audience's mind, refusing to patronise us with pat explanation when the ideas we've been presented with are powerful enough on their own.

Caity Lotz is a convincingly feisty lead, bearing an uncanny resemblance to scream queen Melissa George and managing not to look too silly even when being terrorized in skimpy underwear. Starship Troopers hero Casper Van Dien makes a surprising return to the big screen, having matured into an agreeably grizzled presence who brings some gravitas to the usual good cop routine. Haley Hudson also stands out in an underwritten role that could have been corny beyond belief, but is made sad and unsettling by her haunted porcelain features and delicate intonation; she'd be ideal as one of Tim Burton's goth-doll heroines.

Overall, McCarthy has crafted a dependable chiller that doesn't break any new ground but does get under your skin if you'll forgive its faults. With an uneasy atmosphere maintained right to the end by a refreshingly somber tone that may not appeal to the usual target audience of shrill teens, The Pact isn't going to convert non-believers to its cause but anyone who appreciates a good old-fashioned skin-crawler could do worse than give it a chance. Like the effect the ordeal has on our heroine, the story's sinister undercurrents can only truly be felt in retrospect, and the fact that you're left wanting more marks McCarthy out as one to watch.

Reviewed on: 09 Jun 2012
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A visit to a half remembered childhood home reveals a terrifying secret.
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