Monday, July 9, 2012

The Pact: Scared Stupid

The Pact is kind of a dumb movie, and that may be both its greatest failing and its greatest asset. It certainly doesn’t have the ingenious, everything-clicks-into-place machinery of, say, The Turn of the Screw, nor does it have the pure shock orgy of something like The Descent. Indeed, it’s full of ostensibly risible plot holes and moments that make you actively question what you’re seeing onscreen, and not in a good way. But for the most part the damn thing just plain works. That is to say, it made me scared of my house in a way that no other haunted house movie has in quite some time.

Actually, I hesitate to call The Pact a haunted house story, because it seems to operate on two levels – one where material events ultimately explain everything (or in this case, almost everything), and one where the supernatural is clearly at work. In The Shining, Kubrick built an entire movie out of this tension – all leading up to that chilling moment where the ghosts let Jack Torrance out of the pantry, and we realize that the apparitions are more than just figments of his slowly unraveling mind. The Pact doesn’t have this kind of clean tension, and it follows no straight lines. I can’t tell if this is a stroke of brilliance or just plain shoddy screenwriting. I suspect it's the latter, but still.

To describe all the various inconsistencies and supernatural double standards here would require giving some stuff away, so I won’t go too far into what the movie is about. Basically, a woman comes to her recently deceased mother’s house and disappears after hearing some strange sounds coming from a closet. Her estranged, wild-child sister then has to come back home as well, to look into the disappearance. She too realizes that some unusual things are going on. And away we go.

Funny thing is, Mom’s house isn’t even one of those expansive and creaky houses that we usually see in ghost stories. Really, it’s kind of a simple, ordinary-seeming suburban home. But somehow that actually heightens the sense of dread that director Nicholas McCarthy sustains throughout the film. He’s good at focusing on little, mundane things that place the action in a world that seems not unlike our own. (For example, the sister who disappears is Skyping with her young daughter as she does so.)

Horror movies often work by building on our fears of the unknown. They often take place in remote places -- small towns or isolated forests or wherever – where people act strangely. The Pact does the opposite: It places us in a very familiar world,  then reveals little pockets of darkness in the corners, or the background. It’s like someone has turned the lights on, and we realize that we’re just as terrified of the brightness as we are of the dark. Some Japanese horror does this, too. (Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse comes to mind.) But J-horror also tends to be a lot less specific than The Pact; it’s a genre constantly hovering on the verge of abstraction. McCarthy's film is more clearly defined. It asks questions and it has answers. (Or should I say "answers"?) I’d use the adjective “Lynchian” here, but that would be overselling it mightily.

That said, like David Lynch, McCarthy is smart enough to keep the dread going without really giving us the  release. The Pact has relatively few jump scares, but it maintains all the build-up to those absent jump scares: You watch a character open a mysterious door and step into a dark room, and the film cuts away and you never hear from them again. By leaving the big shocks out, or at least keeping them scarce, McCarthy avoids that sense of crass manipulation which can often turn us off to even an ostensibly effective horror movie. (Slasher flicks, for example, are often built entirely on cheap thrills.) It also lends the film a certain quiet uncertainty that adds to the unease. The Pact does offer a couple of pretty major reveals before it’s all over, but, importantly, it doesn’t tell us everything. Again, I can’t tell how intentional this is, but it's effective. By the time it's all over, we're left in a kind of feedback loop that keeps us from being able to put the film down, as it were. The Pact is a dirty piece of work, but boy, does it get the job done. 

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