An 11-minute haunted-house-horror short get stretched beyond breaking point.
The original, 11-minute version of The Pact was a last-chance saloon for Nicholas McCarthy, a struggling LA writer-director who got lucky when a big shot accidentally caught his short film at Sundance in 2011. Asked whether he had a full-length script, McCarthy said ‘yes’ and spent a frenzied six weeks giving credence to this lie. The result won studio approval and after a low-budget summer-to-autumn shoot, an extended version of The Pact premiered at this year’s festival.
The opening is promising, with a swiftly established premise suggesting that the scares will probably start early. Two sisters are drawn back to their childhood home by the death of their mother. One of them disappears while the other, Annie (Caity Lotz), is left to make sense of a malign force which communicates in classic ghostly manner (bangs and energy whooshes) but with odd techno-savvy flourishes (it appears to know how to navigate Google Maps). Additionally, Annie is haunted by colour-drained nightmares that gradually reveal more about a mysterious room.
So far, so mildly intriguing. But where the short left the room’s mysteries unresolved, the feature fills its time by unpacking them and, subsequently, blunting their impact. Limping tension is then killed off by the introduction of irrelevant, roughly sketched characters. Hello, Caspar Van Dien’s pantomime cop: why not bungle around for a bit? Ditto miscellaneous blind medium and her snarling, protective boyfriend.
Lotz gives a credible performance as the heroine, an independent, Lisbeth Salander-type biker, but her character is exposed as underwritten when the narrative decides to anchor the ghost story and genre-bending twist to her family’s traumatic past. Meanwhile, McCarthy’s quiet ability at jump sequencing is steamrolled by a procession of pounding drums, screeching cellos and weeping pianos.
Aggressive audio, like the filler characters, only serves to enhance the realisation that the central premise is insufficient for the running time. Sadly for fans of fairy tale success stories, The Pact feels like exactly what it is: interesting material warped to fit the wrong format.
Didn’t exactly go down a storm when it played at Sundance.
A good idea fights unsuccessfully for its life.
The idea of a room haunted by unspeakable things has a potency that sticks in the mind.