Being released with little fanfare in UK cinemas this week is THE PACT, the debut feature from writer-director Nicholas McCarthy. I understand it’s an expansion of a previous eleven minute short film of his, with which I am unfortunately unfamiliar. The budget for THE PACT is low, the sets are minimal, and the actors are all pretty much unknowns, but the only thing that’s really important about this film is that all of these factors work in its favour, resulting in a well-made, restrained and surprisingly suspenseful horror film that takes itself seriously and never goes too far over the top.
The film begins with Nicole (Agnes Bruckner) sitting in the drab 1970s-decorated bungalow of her recently deceased mother. She makes a Skype call to say goodnight to her daughter, who is being looked after by her cousin, only for the little girl to ask who the figure is that’s standing behind her. Before you can say ‘I bet there’s nothing there when she turns round’ Nicole has disappeared. Her biker-chick sister Annie (Caity Lotz) tries to find out where she’s gone and ends up being thrown around the same house by a supernatural force for her troubles. Annie enlists the help of a local cop (Casper van Dien) and together they discover a walled-up room in her mother’s house that Annie never knew about in the sixteen years that she lived there. How the room ties in with the supernatural entity, and with a spate of serial killings performed in the area several years previously I will leave you to find out for yourselves.
Kicking off with a reference to Sheridan LeFanu (see if you can spot it), and closing with a cameo by a bottle of J&B (again, keep an eye out or you’ll miss it) and with cinematic references to John Carpenter and Lucio Fulci along the way, THE PACT is actually much more than the sum of its derivatives, and is probably the first film in a long while that has gradually seduced me into liking it with some very well-engineered scares, a plot that never goes in quite the direction you’re expecting, and some chair-arm-clutching suspense sequences that are actually so spot on it was a delight to come out of the cinema having experienced the kind of delicious mixture of dread and suspense that I haven’t enjoyed in a long time. The characters aren’t especially likeable at the beginning but they grow on you, and what I really liked was that a number of standard tropes of a film of this kind (getting a blind psychic involved, using a ouija board) are all handled with a degree of originality such that they don’t feel cliched or over-used. A quick trawl through some current internet reviews reveals that this film isn’t terribly well-loved and that’s a shame, because McCarthy definitely has his horror heart in the right place and many of his visual set-ups are just perfect. Definitely worth a look.