Pact II (2014)
Dir and Written by Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath
Starring Camilla Luddington, Caity Lotz, Scott Michael Foster, Patrick Fischler
|Man, this is an ugly piece of work.|
I honestly feel like the original THE PACT is something of an overlooked classic. It came out right at the humble beginnings of the modern era of indie horror, as ambitious young newcomers were starting to find that they could produce serious, patient, atmospheric horror films for impressively small sums of money. But the true era of microbudget horror had not yet begun in earnest. Now, with obvious descendents like IT FOLLOWS and this years’ THE VVITCH actually becoming legit cultural phenomenon, I can’t help but think that THE PACT was simply ahead of its time, and missed what would eventually become a very appreciative audience of slow-burn indie horror fans by a few years. It got middling reviews at the time, mostly from critics who don’t seem to have a lot of affection or understanding of the genre (see: the Village Voice review which begins by incorrectly claiming “There’s no pact in THE PACT,” a good indicator of how closely the critic was watching). But when I randomly checked it out on Netflix a year after its release, it blew me away. I noted,
“THE PACT is probably the least imaginative [microbudget horror film] 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.
Since that time, my appreciation for the film has only grown, and I was really stoked for director Nicholas McCarthy’s follow-up, AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR. That one turned out to be more of an interesting misfire, but still the work of an undeniable talent, someone with an ability to really surprise you. Surprise is good; that’s why I got excited about these microbudget horror films to begin with. But surprise always carries with it the potential for being a nasty surprise. So it wasn’t just a surprise, but a shock, when I found out they were making a sequel to THE PACT, a movie that wraps up about as perfectly and definitively as you could possibly imagine in the horror genre. And then it turned out that McCarthy wasn’t even involved, with this dubious effort instead being helmed by two sophomore directors --Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath, longtime Hollywood grifters whose credits include everything from art direction on THE HOTTIE AND THE NOTTIE to assistant property master on SEX AND DEATH 101 to their debut as writer/directors in 2012’s meandering existential horror/art drama ENTRANCE-- completely unrelated to the original. So what we’re looking at here is an unasked-for and unnecessary extension of a thoroughly resolved plot, sequel to a three-year-old microbudget that almost no one has ever heard of, from two people not even tangentially involved with the original. I mean, in God’s name why?
Frankly, I thought this was so bizarre that there must be some kind of hidden logic to it, like maybe these guys saw the original and had a sequel idea so deviously brilliant that they couldn’t ignore it. But no, unfortunately this is exactly as miserable as you’d expect based on its pedigree. I can’t really accuse it of being a cynical money-grab, since, you know, what money? But if its inspiration isn’t shamelessly financial, I certainly can’t parse out what else it might be.
Long story short, this is a dishwater-dull retread of the original, so much so that in order to describe the plot I’m going to have to MILDLY SPOIL some key surprises from the original. Since I think the original is brilliant and this one is a dried-up turd, I urge you to go see THE PACT right now if you haven’t already, and then come back and read the rest of this bitchy review of the sequel. So, again, MILD SPOILERS FOR THE ORIGINAL follow. Here’s the thing: THE PACT was mostly an exercise in patient dread and confident horror atmosphere fundamentals, but it did sport an unexpected structure wherein what appeared to be a fairly standard haunted house movie suddenly lurched into a terrifying serial killer story, more or less without warning. PACT II has the brilliant idea to do exactly the same thing, so even though the killer was dead at the end of the last one, here we’re told hey, there’s another killer who’s copying the killer from the first one, and there are more ghosts who are trying to warn another young protagonist (Camilla Luddington, Lara Croft voice and model starting in 2013, recurring roles on Grey’s Anatomy, True Blood, Californication) who turns out to be unexpectedly related to the killer. Pretty much the same notes play out in the same order, but with less impact since we’ve seen all this before.
The big difference --though I doubt it’s intentional-- is that the ghosts are super unhelpful this time around; they like to appear menacingly and scare our heroine even though ostensibly they're trying to assist her. Not very helpful, guys. They’re so unhelpful that she seeks backup from the protagonist from the previous movie (Caity Lotz, Mad Men, backup dancer in various Lady Gaga and Avril Lavigne videos) who comes back for a thankless sidekick role, and her psychic from the previous movie (Haley Hudson, FREAKY FRIDAY, MARLEY AND ME) who does nothing. In fact, nobody does anything, which means 70 % of the runtime is devoted to trying to solve a mystery which never actually gets solved or even produces any particularly useful clues. Unlike the elegant and surprising original, the script this time around can’t seem to find reasons to be mysterious without being willfully abstruse. That’s a problem since the bulk of the movie is made up of minor sleuthing, only occasionally punctuated by spooky jump-scares, and yet the results of all the Nancy Drew action are pretty meager. There’s so few actual clues here that the killer eventually just has to show up and reveal himself. If he didn’t, there really would be no way to know -- in fact, the circumstances of the finale make it obvious that without explicitly being told, our heroine really would never have figured it out. It’s just kind of a lame, lazy mystery, all complete derivative of the original, except padded with new faces. And adding more characters to the stew doesn’t do anything but make it more convoluted.
Not that anyone is really bad, per se, just ill-served. Series newcomer Luddington holds her own adequately enough as the protagonist, despite the humiliation of being upstaged in her own movie by the return of the previous heroine. Lotz seems a little less engaged this time, but it’s probably because her role is so needless. Put together, though, neither has nearly enough to do, and both end up feeling kinda shortchanged (and they both have it better than Hudson, who gets a bafflingly pointless cameo). The only person who manages to fight against the current enough to stand out is veteran character actor Patrick Fischler (small parts in everything from SPEED to RED STATE to HAIL, CEASER and Mad Men) as the awkward, abrasive FBI agent who is also trying to solve the mystery. He has so much fun with his unpleasant oddball character that you could almost forget he only exists to be either the red herring or the killer.
The movie has the same general competence that most microbudgets have these days -- professional acting, coherent editing, decent music, competent cinematography. But it has none of THE PACTS’ signature patient, slow-building dread, which is a real problem since the plot is so doddering. Fact is, it’s real light on scares in general. It does have two (count em!) funny twists on the ol’ “close the bathroom mirror and there’s a scary thing behind me!” gag, though: In one, our heroine closes the mirror… and there’s nothing there. But then a ghost walks up from the background, fully visible. In another, she closes the mirror and ohmygodthere’someonethere! but it turns out to just be a normal person saying hi. I can’t tell if these are genuinely playful tweaks on an old chestnut, or if they’re just somewhat abortive attempts at genuine scares, but they’re the most agreeably distinct thing in the whole movie.
The only other thing worth noting here is that this is one of those unexpected sequels to a movie which completely and neatly wrapped up its plot, so it has no reason to incorporate a lot of details from the original. That would be fine, and I actually assumed it was gonna be sort of a sequel-in-name-only HALLOWEEN III type deal, especially when it immediately introduces us to a new cast. But instead, it quickly turns out to be from the EXORCIST II or SAW III-VII school of sequels which obsessively refer back to the original and go way out of their way to bring back characters and reference various minute details. Remember how EXORCIST II has the long sequences with the babysitter from a couple scenes in the first one? That’s what we’re talking about here. I’m about as big a fan of THE PACT as they come, but even I didn’t remember a lot of minutiae they bring up again. Gotta admit, there’s something kinda ballsy about making a sequel three years later to a microbuget horror movie which never had a wide release, and still demanding that the audience remembers every minor detail. But in practice, it just makes for a bizarre and cumbersome experience and keeps the new plot from ever really taking off on its own. The old stuff has no reason to be here, and focusing so much on it makes the new stuff feel slight and underbaked, like it’s riding on the coattails of the old.
Which of course is exactly what’s happening.