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kilowog [Film Festival 01.29.12] horror thriller

Year: 2012
Directors: Nicholas McCarthy
Writers: Nicholas McCarthy
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: kilowog
Rating: 6 out of 10

Riding a successful wave as a short at the festival last year, writer/director Nicholas McCarthy returned to this year’s Sundance Film Festival equally buzzing early on with the feature length version of The Pact, a quite literal haunting tale of revenge and murder. Having not seen the short that inspired it, it’s only possible for this reviewer to hazard a guess as to what was lost in the translation, and wonder what other story would have been better served as the director’s feature debut in light of this film’s uneven execution.

Leading with a bait and switch, we are first introduced to insolent sister Nicole (Agnes Bruckner), a young woman struggling with a recently deceased mother and a demanding sibling, Annie (relative new talent, Caity Lotz). Upon concluding the debate surrounding the merits of their mother’s contributions to their lives, the two hang up and recovering addict Nicole moves off to a video chat with her daughter only to have it interrupted by a bad connection and a unseen element in her home. Dragged thereafter into her closet by the ghostly figure, sister Annie reports to Nicole’s house days later when her friend’s calls go unanswered. As she arrives, Nicole is nowhere to be found; only her cell phone in the closet is left to serve as a broken clue to her whereabouts. Even though we’ve spent the opening ten minutes of the film with Nicole, clearly this will not be her movie.

Taking her place as the central focus of the story, Annie attempts to utilize the help of the local police force (Casper Van Dien) to address her sister’s fate, albeit to little effect. Pushing forward on her own, Annie uncovers a group of mysterious photos and a link to a series of murders that may well be related to her sister’s disappearance. As each clue begins to fall into place, it becomes apparent that a malevolent spirit is haunting Nicole’s house, the same home the two grew up in. Just who that spirit is and why they collected Nicole and are now after Annie remains a mystery that must be solved.

There is never a doubt to McCarthy’s talents when examining the framing of the film. If he is to be further applauded it would be because in a world of “jumps” and quick cuts, he makes certain to take his time and to never go for the cheap scare. Pacing the film with the camera, the director lets the technology create the sense of tension for us. Whether its with a slow dolly shot or tight close up, we are inside of that house and it’s arguably not the place that we want to be.

Assisted by Lotz’s strong characterization of a sister scorned by family, but equally determined to find a way to make it all work, The Pact does it’s best to steer it’s path towards what some might qualify as elevated genre. It’s only here when the film reaches for a high shelf that it fails miserably. In real estate they tell you it’s location, location, location. In cinema too often they forget to tell you it’s story, story. story. As ours too greatly hinges upon the relationship between Annie and Nicole, we never get to know the former, nor the latter, let alone the relationship between the two thus never delivering on the most basic elements of character development.

Further complicating matters is an inherent but seemingly unintentional sense of humor. On several occasions the audience was left laughing aloud detracting from any added sense of grounding for this supernatural tale. When Annie first encounters her ghostly culprit her “unique” form or communication is a handmade ouija board and later still, the biggest laugh came when a villain paused to take a terrifying sip from a chilled Dr. Pepper.

What of Casper Van Dien, fabled star of Starship Troopers you ask? It’s never clear why he’s involved in the story, and by the time you’re recognizing him, it’s already moved on without him.

As addressed, The Pact is not without it’s stylistic merits, but as you sometimes learn with the evolution of a short film: style isn’t everything.

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