Toronto After Dark Summer Screening: ‘The Pact’ an insidious exercise in atmosphere

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The Pact

Directed by Nicholas McCarthy

Written by Nicholas McCarthy

USA, 2012

Chances are, you’ve probably seen a film like The Pact. But, conversely, chances are you’ve never seen it done quite like this. Although bereft of groundbreaking originality or genre epiphanies, Nicholas McCarthy’s modern take on the haunted house horror picture manages to use these tropes in a way that allows his film to transcend, albeit nominally, above the commonplace drivel of his contemporaries. Well-crafted, competently acted, and with methodical attention to pacing, The Pact is an insidious exercise in atmosphere.

Following the death of her mother, Annie (Caity Lotz) is persuaded by her sister (Agnes Bruckner) to return to their childhood home so they can mourn as a family. Once there, however, Annie discovers that her sister no longer is. The forewarn situation is compounded when things take a turn for the paranormal, culminating in her sinking suspicion that she’s not alone. Armed with the help of a psychic, a cop, and a kitchen knife, Annie delves deeper into the mysteries that plague her house of heretofore, uncovering dark family secrets and grisly, unsolved crimes.

Firstly, it would be dishonest to not point out some of the flaws in The Pact – mainly, as previously mentioned, it isn’t anything new. As the film starts out, it’s a bit disheartening to see so many genre clichés incorporated into the narrative, such as the obligatory rough-around-the-edges cop and delirious psychic characters (played by Casper Van Dien and Haley Hudson respectively), non-diegetic jump-scares, Ouija boards, gaps in logic, and narrative loose ends. All of this is symptomatic in horror films, all of which The Pact falls victim to.

But where The Pact falls short in storytelling, it makes par with in craftsmanship. And where it makes par in with craftsmanship, it surpasses with stylish panache.

The camerawork, in particular, is consistently deft. From steady camera dollies to frantic handheld, the cinematography always fits the situation with assured competence.

This is really accentuated in the film’s numerous and inventive horror set pieces. Although rather ordinary in conception, McCarthy attacks his ideas with a cascade of verve and kinetic energy. Usually predicated by a plodding, deliberate buildup, these scenes erupt with a vitality that is genuinely gripping and impressive.

Along with a strong lead performance by Lotz, whom is able to capture our attention with her smoldering, yet vulnerable disposition (as per any trenchant woman dealing with the death of her mother and her apparent introduction to wanton spirits), and the film’s occasional moxie to forgo its often-overbearing score for a more naturalistic approach (which is devastatingly effective at parts), The Pact creates an environment with palpable foreboding.

It may not be eye-opening cinema, but it also never induces any dispirited eye-rolls. Instead, The Pact is a film you can’t quite bear to tear your eyes away from, and for horror films nowadays, that’s more than you can really hope for.

– Justin Li

For more info and tickets, please visit the website for Toronto After Dark

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