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‘The Pact’ relies on tone, setting to frighten viewers
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Casper Van Dien stars as Creet and Caity Lotz as Annie in Nicholas McCarthy’s “The Pact,” an IFC Midnight release.
Director Nicholas McCarthy sought to “breathe new life into the classic haunted house genre” with “The Pact.”

While not particularly ground-breaking, for a low-budget horror project the film is surprisingly smart and darkly resonant with a fair share of unexpected shocks.

The story begins as Nicole Barlow (Agnes Bruckner) tends to matters following the recent death of her mother. In a phone conversation, she begs her sister Annie (Caity Lotz) to join her at their childhood home to help finalize funeral preparations. Annie refuses, reminding Nicole how their mother used to treat them. A little later, Nicole experiences strange phenomena in the house.

By the time Annie arrives, Nicole has been reported missing by their cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins) who is taking care of Nicole’s daughter Eva (Dakota Bright).

Initially, Annie dismisses Nicole’s disappearance as mere lack of responsibility, suggesting she just took off so she would not have to deal with the funeral. As Annie spends time in the house, she also witnesses inexplicable incidents. She finds she cannot deny the ominous signs.

Realizing the seriousness of the situation, she enlists the aid of local police officer Bill Creek (Casper Van Dien) who is skeptical of her version of the story. She also convinces former schoolmate Stevie (Haley Hudson) – a clairvoyant – to visit the house to see if she can find an explanation for the haunting.

“The Pact” draws from a rich history of haunted house stories. McCarthy gives us shadowy corridors, flickering lights and unexplained noises in the middle of the night. One thing that is unique about this haunted house is its size: Classic haunting films are customarily set in sprawling estates, Victorian mansions with a century’s worth of dark secrets. In “The Pact,” the haunted house is a diminutive California bungalow – a modest, two- to three-bedroom family home boasting retro ’70s décor.

McCarthy also cleverly integrates modern technology into the supernatural tapestry. A laptop, a cell phone and a digital camera all play integral parts in setting up the spooky mood. The director’s restrained use of these elements is reminiscent of Tobe Hooper’s effective use of the creepy television in 1982’s “Poltergeist.”

A more pertinent comparison, though, would be to liken “The Pact” to an extended episode of the television program “The X-Files.” The film features a convincing plot twist that effectively forces the viewer to rethink everything that has taken place. Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully would fit right in to this paranormal investigation.

One thing that sets “The Pact” apart from other recent horror films is its lack of dependence upon computer-generated effects.

“We decided early on to make almost all the special effects ‘practical’ in the film, meaning done the old-fashioned way and not with a computer,” McCarthy said in his press notes. “Me and my director of photography Bridger Nielson wanted to be able to look through the lens and see as close as we could to what we would see in the finished film. That meant that when people appear on the ceiling in this movie – they were actually on the damned ceiling. It was intense for the actors and all of us on the crew to pull off things like that.”

The intensity shows on screen with Lotz and Hudson turning in solid performances. Playing the compassionate skeptic, Van Dien competently allows Creek to have reservations and misgivings while simultaneously trying to play the hero and save Annie.

While McCarthy succeeds in setting an eerie tone and fusing elements of mystery and horror, he falls short on pacing and story-telling. “The Pact” was developed from an earlier short McCarthy made. The earlier version proved to be more of a character study with an ambiguous ending. “The Pact” often feels like a series of well-developed nightmarish scenes connected by unfinished bridges. Though nicely portrayed, Van Dien’s character never feels fully realized – Creek is not much more than a two-dimensional gumshoe.

Even with its faults, “The Pact” is one of the most interesting and entertaining horror films to come along in years. McCarthy’s promising debut may not exhibit any novel ideas, but it does make creative use of existing genre tropes in a distinctive, neo-Gothic style. With a focus on tone and setting over visceral gore and violence, “The Pact” serves up a few good scares without splattering the audience in blood or relying on computer graphics to evoke cinematic horrors.

“The Pact” opens in limited release Friday, July 6. It is currently available On Demand through Bright House.
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