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The Pact (Nicholas McCarthy, 2012)


Accomplished both as a haunted house thriller and a debut feature film, Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact makes an immediate impression. Its first scare scene recalls the classic Drew Barrymore opener from 1996’s Scream, updated for contemporary times, but instead of paying off with a spurt of gore, it leaves the viewer with a sense of mystery that firmly establishes McCarthy as a filmmaker more concerned with atmosphere than shocks. Small scale, but all the more effective due to its limited palette, this film confirms McCarthy as a talent to watch.


Without spoiling anything, the plot here involves two sisters who visit the home of their recently deceased, abusive mother to settle affairs. What is found instead is, perhaps predictably, a series of revelations about foul play, familial deceit and buried secrets. In its broad strokes, The Pact may not stray far from the template of the haunted house movie, but in its specifics it distinguishes itself.


The horror takes place, for example, in a sunny California town, and tensions are as likely to be raised in the broad daylight as the middle of the night. Combined with the McCarthy’s efficient pacing, this enables the entire film to take on a sense of dread. There is little unnecessary expository dialogue and there are few scenes here that fail to pay off with at least an eerie moment, which is refreshing in a genre that so often takes so long to deliver the goods. Though there are not many moments in The Pact that seem likely to make a viewer shriek, at least before its climax, McCarthy is rather masterful at establishing atmosphere, which becomes doubly impressive once one considers that the bulk of the action here takes place in a single, nondescript suburban home.


While The Pact hardly forges new ground for the genre, it comes about its scares honestly, without reliance upon gimmicks or cheap tactics. Professionally made and ably acted, this independent release is more competent than the bulk of recent studio-produced horror releases. Though The Pact might not pay off with an especially satisfying conclusion, the bulk of its runtime is admirable in its ability to generate discomfort skillfully.



Jeremy Heilman