Haunted houses, Japanese ghost girls, grainy found footage. Ghost stories once had the power to strike fear in the hearts of cinema-goers. After years of reboots, remakes and just plain rubbish, though, that power has dwindled. This year’s Woman In Black aside, films about spooks and phantoms have generally, uh, given up the ghost. Which, one assumes, is precisely why director Nicholas McCarthy has set his no-budget chiller, The Pact, in the last place you’d expect – sunny, modern day San Pedro. All the better to scare you with.
As a concept, it works beautifully. Introducing us to the film’s main setting, a flat-pack home in a suburban neighbourhood on the fringes of an industrial site, McCarthy instantly wrong-foots expectations. This isn’t the gothic haunted residence of The Innocents or The Others – it’s an everyday abode as gaudy as it is mundane.
Except it’s here, in her recently deceased mother’s house, that Nicole (Agnes Bruckner) mysteriously disappears one evening. All we know is that somebody (or something) was in the house with her. When Nicole’s sister Annie (newcomer Caity Lotz) pitches up looking for her, she finds nothing more than an empty house. It’s not long, though, before things are going bump in the night, and Annie starts to uncover unsettling secrets about her family.
Sundrenched setting aside, there’s pretty much nothing new in The Pact. Despite that, you can’t help but admire the skill with which McCarthy delivers his slow-burn scares. He excels at making us fear cramped, claustrophobic spaces. Narrow, gaudily-decorated corridors. Tiny broom cupboards. Shadowy bedrooms. All are exploited to suffocating effect, and The Pact works brilliantly as a celluloid jack in the box – each act builds steadily to a blow-out crescendo that’ll leave the hairs on your arms standing on end.
Last year, Insidious took the same approach. But where that film devolved into messy farce, The Pact is tripwire taut throughout – right up to its lingering, creeping final shot. It’s also a thoroughly modern spooker, utilising Skype, laptops and mobile phones to reveal hidden nasties (“Mommy, who’s that behind you?” asks a little girl in one nifty update on pantomime horror cliché).
Where The Pact falters is in its characterisation. While there’s no doubting Annie’s a ballsy heroine (after the things she encounters, we’d forgive her for running right out the door), she’s also one that we know next to nothing about. Beyond the fact that she has a sweet pair of wheels and a healthy disrespect for authority, of course. Poor old Casper Van Dien gets the worst treatment, though, as a sympathetic cop who acts as little more than a sounding board for Annie’s theories.
Considering The Pact started life as a short film (it showed at Sundance 2011), it’s surprising McCarthy didn’t attempt to dig further into his characters for the feature length version. Clearly, his priorities lie elsewhere. With its creepy psychic girls (“Oh, she’s here,” murmurs a gaunt Haley Hudson in a clear nod to Poltergeist), quavering long takes and refreshing lack of false scares, it’s a modest, contained tension-cranker that just wants to scare the crap out of you. In that, it mostly succeeds. 3/5