DVD Review: The Pact
By Keri O’Shea
It’s the strangest thing. Somewhere along the line – perhaps around the time of the strobe-ridden, brainless Thir13en Ghosts remake – filmmakers got confused about how to tell ghost stories. Suspense and tension, with all of the skill and patience needed to accomplish them, just seemed to leave the horror movie vocabulary for a while, and in their place we got…jump cuts. Hundreds of them. Even when we were shown by filmmakers in the Far East that scary horror needed subtlety to make an impact, what happened? People like Gore Verbinski took a break from kids’ films and turned the slowly-creeping, unstoppable Sadako into a freaky gymnast called Samara. Cut! CUT! And easy on the blaring incidental music, while you’re at it.
It has been a genuine pleasure for me to see suspense and tension making a comeback, as they have in films like The Orphanage, and the cruelly-underrated Lake Mungo. And, if you prefer a shiver down the spine to being manipulated into jumping out of your skin, then I can genuinely recommend The Pact, a film which, even viewed on a laptop with lousy speakers in the middle of the afternoon, made my skin crawl on several occasions. But there’s a lot more to it than that, even. The Pact boasts a meaty plot which kept me locked into the film throughout, and I could never settle into a comfortable sense of expectation because I genuinely had no idea where it was going next. That is a rare thing indeed.
After her mother’s death, Nicole (Agnes Bruckner) arrives at her childhood home in time for the funeral. Her sister Annie (Caity Lotz) isn’t quite as forgiving, and wants nothing to do with it; we find out early on that their mother was abusive and cruel, and Annie doesn’t have any intention of paying her respects. But, Annie’s assertion that she will not set foot inside that house again is soon rendered problematic when Nicole, seemingly spooked by something, just – disappears. Annie arrives the next day, and all that’s left of Nicole is her mobile phone. Annie suspects that Nicole, an ex-addict, has just done a runner; that’s what her family does, she reasons. But when the funeral comes and goes with no Nicole, it seems there’s reason to worry after all. Plus, the house is growing increasingly sinister; things are going on that Annie can’t explain. When another family member also disappears shortly after getting inside the place, Annie seeks help to find them, and it seems that the house is about to yield up a complex array of secrets.
Think you can guess where it’s all going, based on that? Think again. This is a cleverly-wrought film, one which balances the supernatural with oh-so human mystery and it never feels like either element is an afterthought. Everything is handled very skilfully, showing that you don’t need overkill to create atmosphere and mood. Something as simple as the choice of camera work (almost never static in tense scenes, often overbearingly close to Annie as she moves around the house) creates the feeling of claustrophobia which is so integral to the movie, and the house itself is a great setting, all contrast between the twee family photos and chintz and pockets of black darkness. It’s overbearing, unsettling and very very creepy. Director/writer Nicholas McCarthy knows how the human mind works. We can all relate to that sensation of fear caused by a barely-heard noise, a glimpsed form, the what-ifs in any corner too dark to see into. He weaves these moments throughout his film, keeping high action scenes a rarity and strengthening the film as a result. And the horror is all bang up-to-date too. Ju-on made snazzy new mobile phones and CCTV frightening; The Pact features a scene involving Google Street View which made my skin crawl. It’s essentially a riff on the M R James story The Mezzotint, only recreated for the 21st Century.
The Pact does rely on a few genre staples to move things forward: for example, any on-screen haunting seems to play havoc with lightbulbs, so expect a bit of that, and it also features a blind psychic which felt oddly familiar…still, her scene reveals another layer of plot, so it’s forgiven. Speaking of Stevie, the psychic character, one thing came to mind as I watched The Pact – and that’s how unfortunate it must be for any filmmaker to start working on a project and then, at some point in the process, realise there’s another film coming out at practically the same time which is notably similar plot-wise. In this case, and I’m almost nervous of mentioning it, there’s a marked resemblance between The Pact and Cassadaga, which came out last year – and in regards far more than the appearance of a sensory-impaired psychic. This must be teeth-grindingly frustrating for any director, but in fairness there are far worse films to resemble than Cassadaga, and both movies share great strengths in atmosphere and a novel approach to storytelling. The Pact definitely has the whip hand in terms of scares, though, and draws them out in a series of original ways. At the heart of this is Annie, who balances believable fortitude with her understandable terror at the unfolding events. Dialogue-lite, The Pact relies heavily on sensations and emotions speaking for themselves, and this works well thanks to Caity Lotz’s performance.
Disturbing, gripping, and well-crafted, The Pact is one of the strongest horror movies I’ve seen this year. In Annie Riordan’s review, she said it’s one she happily revisited, simply to look out for the little intricacies of plot she missed the first time around. I’d agree with this, and I just know that, when I see this again, The Pact will still have plenty to reward me. And, just in case I haven’t waxed lyrical enough on this movie, the final thing I’ll say is that I watched most of it with my hand over my mouth, so unbearable was the tension. That’s a pretty big compliment. No film riddled with jump-cuts has ever made me do that.
The Pact will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on October 1st 2012.