Writer-director Nicholas McCarthy has taken the bold route chosen by many fledgling horror filmmakers to turn his short, The Pact, into a feature-length film of the same name. While the premise of another spooky house and its creepy watchful eye seems old hat, McCarthy spins it into a worthy mind warp of intense proportions for his first debut.
Young, independent, family black sheep Annie (Caity Lotz) is forced to deal with her past in the wake of her dominant mother’s death, after her sister vanishes without a trace inside the childhood home. As Annie investigates further, she struggles to come to grips with a haunting family secret that lingers like an unsettling and ugly presence that threatens to consume her.
The Pact blends various genres, suitably employing all the usual chilling horror effects and ‘bumps in the dead of night’ with the utmost confidence. On the psychological thriller side, it deals with the supernatural within the context of loss and grief, and its ugly twist not only gives the film more substance than the normal, low-budget, spooky house affair but also has you readdressing all the triggers and clues from the start. It does make you work to figure out the punch line though – taking a lot longer than necessary to piece together the puzzle, complete with some overly confusing elements.
Cutting her teeth in TV’s Mad Men Lotz proves she is a reliable feature-film lead here, certainly drawing on her cop-style tactics in this made-to-fit role that appears to combine all her previous acting experience for her horror outing. Lotz has lots to carry on her capable shoulders as we experience each new development in the mystery through her eyes while managing to keep our attention. It’s a promising start for the TV-cum-film star, but possibly because there is very little else, character-wise, to draw on in this.
McCarthy’s claustrophobic, creepy camera angles heighten our paranoia, securing the weird distain we gradually feel for the four walls we’re ‘trapped’ in. In this sense, we sense the lead’s discomfort as much as she does. But in Annie’s drawn-out battle to find the truth, by the time she does, and does a Clarice Starling on us, we’re a little blasé about her eventual escape – of which is this obvious as the story sets itself up for a survivor to live to retell the family nightmare to the next generation.
McCarthy’s first feature is an effective debut mimicking the John Carpenter school of tension and curiosity, but not as snappily edited and fully realised as it could be. While it retreads well-trodden horror paths and shies away from any originality, it does favour heightening the mystery over goriness, relying on some impressive visuals for a full psychological effect.