When it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year The Pact was apparently met with praise by the majority of festival goers and critics alike. A low-budget, American horror featuring Casper Van Dien that’s supposed to be good? They had my interest (to paraphrase DiCaprio from the trailer where he has a moustache and cigarette holder). Then the trailer popped up. It kind of looked like a generic spook film with a attractive twenty something running around screaming. Ah, maybe that’s just lazy marketing I thought, after all a hundred festival goers can’t be wrong.
The story begins with Nicole (Agnes Bruckner) staying in her dead mother’s house where she is finalising her estate and funeral. Speaking on the phone to her sister Annie, it is revealed that they had a troubled history with their dead mum. After the conversation Nicole sees an open door leading and dark room.
Annie arrives having been told that Nicole has disappeared. What begins is a surprisingly long plot description that you involves mysterious photos, hidden family secrets, odd-psychic high school chum, an angry poltergeist and Caper Van Dien eating ice cream.
At under ninety minutes writer/director Nicholas McCarthy crams a lot of plot in. Characters are introduced and seemingly tossed aside with abandon. Revelations that explain the why events are happening inspire “meh” reactions. The plot unfolds not so much like a rug being unfurled but more like a slinky going upstairs.
The film starts promisingly. It’s implied that we’re about to watch Nicole’s story, we meet her, her daughter, establish her relationships to her sister and mother – so her disappearance so early on is a nice rug pull. We then have Annie as our heroine. Catty Lotz does a fantastic job of appearing genuinely confused by the events that are happening around her but lacks something that makes you want to invest in her as a character. Rather than ever being worried for Annie I found myself passively watching the screen as she runs screaming from one scene into the next. Casper Van Dien’s (relatively short) appearance as a kindly police detective is one of his better performances. He and his jaw get to do a bit more than stand looking imposing and acts as a calm counterbalance to Lotz’s raging.
As The Pact begins McCarthy seeps the film in dark, black tones reminiscent of Lost Highway. The film does look very slick and competently directed. Darkened rooms are pitch black leading to a sense of unease. However as the film progresses the darkens never lets up. Even scenes set in the middle of the day are swamped in oppressive dark tones and shadowy corridors. This should give the film a great sense of claustrophobia and mystery but aims up becoming annoying as it becomes hard to decipher what is sometimes happening on the screen. A couple of jump scares as ghostly figures appear from the darkness, the horror in The Pact is kept relatively low key. It feels as though it was written as a paranormal mystery that has had moments of spookiness inserted for easier marketing. Moments like Annie being tossed around a room by an invisible spectre never feel horrific as they should. In these moments the films slickness takes all the urgency from these scenes, appearing as well framed chase sequences rather than moments of pure horror.
By the end of the film I didn’t really care what was happening which was a shame because I wanted to really invest in a good old fashioned spook story. McCarthy’s desire to weave a well-formed mystery bloats the film with too many plot revelations and inconsequential characters. If the story had been trimmed and filmed less like a commercial it could have made for an atmospheric descent a terrifying family tragedy. As it is The Pact is another good-looking, dull American horror that I’m frankly surprised made it to cinemas.