Paging through the press notes for The Pact, I came across an interview with writer/director Nicholas McCarthy, who explained the differences between his short film of the same name and this new feature-length adaptation. According to him, the essential difference is that “the short is all about not seeing things – it ends with you never knowing what is beyond the scary door we keep making reference to – while the feature is about seeing more and more, with the movie becoming scarier and scarier the more we discover.” I wish I had read that quote before actually watching the film; I would have known to lower my expectations. Here is a film that fails precisely because of how much we discover. Apart from the fact that the mystery is ruined, the explanations are implausible and confuse more than they clarify.
It’s a shame too, because the opening segments promise a tense, engaging supernatural thriller. We begin with a woman named Nicole (Agnes Bruckner), who’s in the home of her recently deceased mother. She’s having an over-the-phone argument with her sister, Annie (Caity Lotz), who, due to years of their mother’s physical abuse, refuses to attend the funeral or even help plan it. After the call ends badly, Nicole has a webcam chat with her young daughter, Eva (Dakota Bright), who’s being tucked into bed on the other side of the country. As they talk, Nicole picks up her laptop and wanders around the house in search of better reception. “Who’s that behind you?” Eva asks her mother. Nicole turns around. No one is there. The only thing she sees is the door of the hallway closet. She puts the laptop down, walks over to the door, anxiously opens it, and stares into darkness for a moment before the screen cuts to black.
Annie, a hardened biker chick, is finally coaxed back to her mother’s home when her cousin, Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins), leaves worried voicemail messages on her cell phone. Nicole has gone missing. Annie isn’t surprised by this; Nicole is a recovering drug addict and has a history of disappearing. With great difficulty, Annie opens the door of the hallway closet, struggling to hold back painful memories of being locked in there as a little girl. Quite unexpectedly, she discovers Nicole’s cell phone lying on the floor. Liz eventually arrives with Eva for the funeral and stays with Annie at the house. The quiet night is loudly interrupted by as yet unexplained bursts of paranormal activity. Fighting off a force that makes her float in the air, Annie grabs Eva and gets out of the house. Liz, in an unfortunate turn of events, disappears without a trace.
The opening scenes rely on common but nonetheless effective subtleties, such as flickering lights, objects that are on tables one minute and strewn on the floor the next, mysterious shadows, and doors that seem to have opened on their own. But as the film progresses, it becomes less about creating apprehension and more about manufacturing a plot around tiresome ghost movie clichés, including a useless cop (Casper Van Dien) who sniffs around the scene not believing a word of Annie’s story, a pale psychic (Haley Hudson) who goes into convulsions and spouts cryptic warnings, a hand-drawn Ouija board, the discovery of a hidden bedroom, the ever-present symbolism of crosses, and the photographs that show an apparition pointing at something. There’s even a back story regarding a serial killer and a hidden passage to an underground chamber.
What’s ultimately revealed is immensely unsatisfying, in part because it’s painfully unoriginal, but mostly because narrative logistics make it impossible to believe. In spite of this, McCarthy milks the ending for all its worth, saddling us and his characters with not one but three plot twists. I suspect it wasn’t out of necessity so much as it was out of obligation to the genre; he knew audiences have come to expect certain things from movies like this, and so he made sure to include all of them. I grant you, his approach might have worked if the film had been a send-up or homage. But he makes the dread mistake of taking what he’s doing seriously and expecting us to follow suit. That’s really hard to do when overall story is shortchanged in favor of individual conventions, none more annoying than a final shot amounting to overkill.
Unless I missed something along the way, and God knows that’s a distinct possibility, the meaning of the title is not made apparent to the audience. Exactly who made a pact? When was it made? Who was it made with? For reasons I obviously can’t give you, The Secret would have been much more accurate. Blander, vaguer, and unflatteringly commonplace, but more accurate just the same. Movies like The Pact exemplify the widespread and misguided belief that showing and explaining everything in a horror movie is the best possible approach. When bad things happen, doesn’t the greatest terror lie in not knowing why? I haven’t seen McCarthy’s original short film, but on the basis of his description of it, and considering the less-than-optimal results of his expanded remake, I’m beginning to wish I had.
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