Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Pact

The Pact (2012)
Dir. and Written by Nicholas McCarthy
Starring Caity Lotz, Anges Bruckner, and Casper Van Dien

THE PACT is a really god damn impressive example of a horror film which was obviously made with almost no money but feels more intense and ambitious than nearly any other horror film I saw last year. Like a bunch of recent horror films --this year’s MAMA, for example-- it was an expansion of a short film by the same name, but it doesn’t feel fatty nor threadbear, nor does it seem to have any interest in using the bigger budget to ratchet up the spectacle. This is a film all about tone, mostly set in one location, and generally as stylistically unadorned as possible. And that’s what makes it great.

The story is nicely simple and to the point, but with exactly the kind of subtle detail that makes something like this worthwhile. Our protagonist, Annie (Caity Lotz, formerly a backup dancer for Avril Lavigne and Lady Gaga but here a convincing everywoman) arrives back in her hometown to settle her recently deceased mother’s estate. She’s none too happy to be back because she hated her mother and ran away from home years ago, but returns out of loyalty to her older sister. Only problem is, Sis is mysteriously missing and something evil is obviously going on in the house. But what? And why?

If you're going to escape from ghosts in your underwear, doing it on via motorcycle is probably your best option.

McCarthy doesn’t have the budget for big expensive Poltergeist effects scenes, so instead he goes for a more ambitious route: THE SHINING in a house. Everything here is about dread and intimation as the camera uneasily drifts around the squat, dated suburban house which is both entirely average and subtly unnerving. McCarthy cleverly uses his long, eerie pans thought the dim rooms to not only create an air of unnerving apprehension, but also to surreptitiously familiarize us with the layout of the house. Most of the movie takes place here, and the paranoia and claustrophobia of being stuck in a house with unknown dark forces effectively transforms the normal trappings into treacherous tools of malicious guile. Before long, the outdated refrigerator and ugly wallpaper take on a threatening, perfidious quality, like crouching predators waiting for the most vulnerable moment to strike. The set isn’t as elaborate and alien as Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel, but in a way the veneer of normalcy makes it all the more sinister, and its cramped, circular structure gives a palpable sense of a spiraling oubliette from which there is no escape.  

In keeping with the juxtaposition of the mundane and the inexplicable, McCarthy gets convincing, natural performances from his actors, particularly Lotz and Angie Bruckner (THE WOODS) as her sister. Lotz, as Annie, does something that characters in this situation almost never do: she makes decisions that a normal human would make. When it becomes obvious that the house is haunted, she moves to a motel. When she find evidence that someone has been in her room, she contacts the police. The police, understandably, are skeptical of her claims, but one guy is believably sympathetic to her enough to try and help anyway. This cop seems like a nice guy, an authentic mix of genuine compassion and a total incredulousness about her claims of supernatural meddling. The only thing not believable about it is that although it’s a perfectly fine performance he’s played by this cartoonishly handsome square-jawed hunky heartthrob looking dude who I did not realize was Casper Van Dien until the credits rolled. Johnny Rico comes across likeable and committed (and is better than the usual performance you’d get in something like this) but come on, no one looks like that. It’s not his fault that he looks like a human parody of a cartoon Disney prince, but seriously, that jaw is the least realistic thing in this horror movie about a haunted suburb.

Casper misses mandatory military co-ed showers.

Van Dien’s face aside, the movie establishes a surprisingly convincing reality to play in, which makes the film’s heroically strange final act a make-or-break moment. In a lesser movie, it might push credulity past the breaking point. But the nifty thing about the tone here is that despite the token of realism in the acting and design, there’s always been an undercurrent of the inexplicable, and so the explanation here (which explains enough without exactly spelling everything out) is depraved enough to connect strongly on an emotional level and muscle its way past your ability to dismiss it as absurd. It’s unexpected, yet fits snugly into the movie’s themes and the details of the plot* -- all helpful traits, although the imagery is probably nightmarish enough to get under your skin all by itself. The movie’s bare-bones minimalism --long period of quiet, few sets, no extraneous dialogue-- allows the horror to unfold at a deliberate pace, but one which never seems slack or aimless. In fact, it turns out when you don’t try to sell the horror with a loud bang and a money shot every time, it actually heightens its ability to unnerve.

I’ve got to say, there’s been a kind of renaissance of micro-budget horror movies these last few years, from the brilliant Kickstarter-funded ABSENTIA, to the eerie YELLOWBRICKROAD, to the overreaching but interesting CORRIDOR, and now this. I like this trend, because it seems to have allowed some ambitious horror directors to try new kinds of approaches to horror which embrace a minimalist, atmospheric approach. Even when they’re completely awful -- Adam Wingard’s POP SKULL, for example-- they tend to have moments which are unique and scary in a way mainstream horror films hardly ever seem to try for. Without big setpiece horror scenes, they have to focus on getting the detail right: the sound, the editing, the music, the cinematography, the tone, the psychology. Even the acting, something which for a long time most horror films didn’t even bother with. THE PACT is probably the least imaginative of this ilk that I’ve seen, but on the other hand it’s also one of the most successful and satisfying, and maybe even the most ambitious. It’s focused and disciplined, singularly committed to drawing the maximum unease out of the most minimal setups, and letting that gnawing discomfort slowly bloom into a truly horrific finale. For its confidence alone, it’s as worthy a horror film as I’ve seen in quite a while.

Before you try this, you gotta ask yourself how badly you really want to see whatever it is that's creeping through the dark at you.
I think Van Dien is the only significant male character here, so an easy win.

*The mostly-negative Village Voice review begins by falsely stating “There’s no pact in THE PACT,” a good indicator that even some major critics seem to not pick up on a theme unless it’s explicitly stated aloud for them.

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