January 29, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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It takes about an hour, but Nicholas McCarthy’s THE PACT, which premiered in the Park City At Midnight section at Sundance, eventually turns out to have a neat twist up its sleeve, one that switches the movie from haunted house horror to an entirely different subgenre of thriller.  And after that, a solid reel or so of scares and suspense kicks in, and the picture moves into another gear.

The question will be whether that’s enough, given that the hour preceding the twist has been an exceedingly routine low-budget chiller, and that the ending afterward is a cruddy, obvious cheap-shock coda. 

The Pact is McCarthy’s first feature, expanded from a short that previously screened at Sundance.  It’s set mostly in and around a house where a single mother (of the sadistic variety, not the noble, self-sacrificing kind) raised 2 daughters, both of whom left town as soon as they were old enough.  When the story begins, mom has recently died, and a prologue mysteriously dispatches the older sister, herself a (much better) single mother, while having an ill-fated Skype session with her young daughter.  (This year’s Sundance lesson of both The Pact and V/H/S:  stay away from Skype.)  This brings biker sister Annie (Caity Lotz) somewhat reluctantly to town, less to attend her mother’s funeral than to find out what happened to her older sister.  We’re immediately plunged into the world of inexplicable sounds, disquieting nightmares, unseen forces that fling our heroine against the walls, and shadowy was-that-really-there? figures.

All of this comes right out of the haunted house movie textbook, and McCarthy isn’t a skilled enough filmmaker to hide the lack of production values.  Instead we get the usual silences leading to sudden musical and sonic zings, many lightbulbs that flare and then burst, and ghostly visitations.  Even lay-up set-pieces like the visit of an eccentric psychic (who Annie, in an unlikely development, knew in high school), offer minimal fun.  With the exception of Lotz (she played the niece of Don Draper’s California “wife” on Mad Men), who has plenty of charisma as the Ripley-like Annie, the acting is for the most part wooden and subpar.

And then The Pact zigs when you expect it to zag, and McCarthy suddenly gets his directing feet under him for a few minutes.  It builds a lot of goodwill… which he then squanders with his dumb, predictable epilogue.  This leaves The Pact as a severely mixed bag, one that has its jolting moments, but doesn’t deliver consistently or professionally enough to justify its festival berth.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."