The Pact (review) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, starring “Death Valley“‘s Caity Lotz as a woman who returns to her family home after her mother’s death and her sister’s disappearance. Reluctant to even face the family history, Annie (Lotz) finds there are even more forces in the house than just her bad family memories.
Bloody Disgusting stringer Fred Topel caught up with Lotz, along with the film’s director, Nicholas McCarthy, to talk about the supernatural haunter that was acquired by IFC Films. Like many horror films, ‘The Pact’ gave Lotz a juicy role to play where she gets to kick ass and fight back, but also show the layers of Annie’s past troubles. “I love it,” Lotz said at Sundance. “It’s really fun. The “Death Valley” character’s the total opposite. She’s much more bubbly and happy but she’s still a ferocious ass kicker. Annie is so dark and complicated and brooding. It was something different than I’ve ever had a chance to play. She’s so complicated and dark. It’s like she always has to be balancing on this tightrope of vulnerability and strength. She goes through so much in the movie. She’s just a badass so that’s why I was like I want to play this girl. I always end up a little bit more like my characters when I’m doing the filming. Annie’s a no bullsh*t, and some people might call her a bitch, but she just doesn’t take any sh*t. She’s really tough. Even though she’s very emotionally guarded, I had to kind of shake that off a couple weeks after. It took me a little bit.”
Writer/director Nicholas McCarthy has been a Sundance veteran with short films. ‘The Pact’ is his first feature. His timing is good, as the paranormal entities that manipulate Annie in the house are en vogue these days. McCarthy traces the paranormal movement back further than the ‘Paranormal Activity’ franchise.
“I think something happened with horror in the ‘90s,” McCarthy said. “The genre kind of split in two. I think the split was between this kind of legacy of the slasher film which ‘Silence of the Lambs’ was kind of like the up market slasher movie. Slashers became two kinds of films that became either upmarket or television or they became the really rough kind of, I guess a lot of these filmmakers are saying retro ‘70s movies. ‘Hostel’ is a perfect example and that’s kind of horror at the hands of another, slasher film. The other kind of movie is the ghost story. I think it was the popularity of ‘The Sixth Sense’ but also for the genre it was the Asian horror films, ‘The Ring’ and ‘Ju-On’. This kind of idea of ghosts becoming actually legitimately frightening for an audience, they hadn’t really found a cinematic language that was new until those films in the ‘90s, until ‘The Sixth Sense’, until ‘Ju-On’ and ‘The Ring’. Those ides of portraying these spirits I think started in the ‘90s with the Asian films, which I think kind of reinvented a certain language for these ghost story movies. It just keeps moving forward and people want to play with that.”
Annie becomes a sort of spiritual MacGyver, making her own Ouija board on the floor at one point. That’s all it takes to make the spirits communicate with her. “We used magnets and we had it on the actual floor and then we had another matching floorboard to put over it that they could have magnets to slide underneath it,” Lotz said. “That’s tricky. Working with those magnets was tricky, getting it to slide to the right areas. That was a fun scene though. That first moment when it moves, I remember doing it and I was so scared. I would never do Ouija boards as a kid. I refused to because I was like I’m not trying to knock on Satan’s door, all right? Those ghosts, I don’t want to talk to them. I don’t need to do that. I didn’t want to open any doors, so the movie kind of explored that fear for me.”
For McCarthy, he wasn’t trying to be part of any movement. ‘The Pact’ represents what he finds scary. “I’m a huge horror fan. I was not ever consciously trying to tell a ghost story,” McCarthy said. “I just wanted to tell a story and I’ve always found ghosts scary, as anybody has found ghosts scary. When it came to actually writing it, there were a couple movies I did go back and look at. One is ‘Shutter’, the Thai film which I’m a big fan of and I shamelessly rip off one scene in my movie from. Not the American remake but the original Thai film. The other movie that I looked at was ‘The Haunting’ which is the classic 1963 Robert Wise film that is all about not showing things. Why they’re popular again, the answer is because they’re scary. That sort of idea of a person that is in the room that is invisible is a frightening idea that is written in childhood, that something may touch you at any time. It’s that thing that happens when you wake up in the middle of the night and you think someone’s in your apartment, you think someone’s in your house.”
‘The Pact’ becomes a different sort of horror film in the third act. Without spoiling the twist, Lotz revealed how intense the filming got for her. “It was as intense as it looked,” she said. “That kicked my ass. The closet scene killed me. The wires that they were wrapped around my wrists and ankles were real wires. You’re really struggling and the hair thing was real. We shot it from the front of the closet, behind the closet, above the closet and on multiple days I had to be in that ‘I’m about to die’ terrified state. It was really exhausting.”
Actually, the moment most likely to creep audiences out is a simple scene where a picture frame shatters, and Annie gets a shard of glass stuck in her bare foot. “You know what, that was one of my managers’ too,” Lotz said. “He was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t watch that.’ I was like it’s just glass. It’s play pretend.”
Being a low budget film, McCarthy and Lotz had to shoot that old school. “Yeah, that was a real piece of glass by the way,” McCarthy said. “That was Caity’s foot. We were so low budget, what we actually did was just had the makeup girl paint a little cut. The props people, I was like, ‘Okay, so we’re going to shatter this sugar glass on the floor right?’ They were like, ‘We don’t have any sugar glass.’ So that was real glass so we were very careful that Caity wouldn’t sit on it. Then she took a little piece and stuck it to her foot.”
Lotz didn’t draw real blood, but she poked the point of the glass in far enough to make it look real. “I had to jam it in my foot, put the fake blood and push it in so it looked like it was in there good and pull it out,” she said. “I didn’t have to bust out the knife and cut open my foot. I could fake it enough.”
‘The Pact’ began as a short film that played the Sundance Film Festival last year. McCarthy has been making films since he was 10 using a super 8 camera. His comedy shorts have played the festival too. ‘The Pact’ short is essentially the first 6-7 minutes of the feature film.
“The short is kind of like a moody character piece that is more about this idea of this woman believing in ghosts rather than the straight genre movie that this is,” McCarthy said. “I didn’t make that short as a trailer for a feature. It was only when I left Sundance and I met with this company that were like, ‘We love your movie. We want to make a feature out of it’ that I started to think about what would this movie be if this was the first scene?”
That short then impacts Lotz’s performance, because it becomes the backstory to Annie’s relationship with her sister. “I did [watch it] which was interesting because it’s very different,” Lotz said. “With the short I loved the maturity of it. Everything is very classic and it’s respectful. It’s not like run and jump to the scary part. It’s a slow burning terror. You have to just watch it and then release it completely because you don’t want to recreate anything. You want it to be original and do your thing. So I just kind of would let that go.”
Reviews from Sundance were divided, and McCarthy avoided Googling reviews of his own movie. He expects horror fans to be picky though.
“Horror fans are the ones that care the most about movies because they know how films are made,” he said. “They know how they’re constructed. They know special effects. They know how tension is built and they take the genre very, very personally. I’m happy to be in that space. In a way, I’m happy to piss people off as much as delight people who loved the movie.”
McCarthy relates, because he knows the stakes are higher when evaluating a horror film. “I kind of identify with it because as a horror fan versus any other genre, you’re looking for Jesus every time you watch a f***ing horror movie. Seriously, horror movies and any kind of movies that matter are the ones that last in some way. I can’t say whether mine will or not but the fact that there seems to be this divided opinion about it is this weird comfort for me, because of course I want to be loved and I want people to like the film, but the fact that the enthusiasm of people walking up to me and talking about the film and the enthusiasm of the screams inside the theater versus the people that are like, ‘I hate this movie,’ it means that there’s something there. There are so many horror films that are right there in the middle, that are like yeah, it’s this thing that we’ve seen before a hundred million times. So I’m in a way weirdly proud to be there. Seriously, I do the same thing with horror films.”
The Sundance premiere was a good experience for McCarthy though. “When we premiered it was such a weird thing because half the f***ing place was filled with buyers. We kept them in their seats which is more than a lot of the movies. That’s why in a way I’m looking forward to seeing the film here this week. I think it’ll be a fairer assessment in a way of the strengths and weaknesses of the movie, versus that first not. It’s so loaded with anticipation, so loaded with people who are there to form an opinion, and they have every right to, whether from a sales perspective, as a journalist or from just a cast and crew. So I’m looking forward to seeing it with an audience because they’ll actually be like, ‘Let’s go see this horror movie.’”
For Lotz, horror makes her look away. Even on her own show, she gets squeamish. “I just get so grossed out,” she said. “I get so grossed out with the gore. On my MTV show we were so gory but it was a comedy so it kind of made it a little bit easier. But I get scared. I get so scared and I hate being scared.”
As for “Death Valley” season two, Lotz needs your help to get MTV on board. “If you want to see it back, let MTV know. Hit up Twitter, hit up Facebook, hit up MTV, do shoutouts. MTV knows it’s a good show. I think they’re just trying to figure out. I mean, it’s so different. It’s a horror comedy on MTV. It’s nothing like anything that they have so I think they don’t know what to do with it.”