As I’ve written previously on this site, ghost stories stop being scary as soon as you turn the ghost into a protagonist with a problem. That’s why the first half of poltergeist movies are usually scarier than the second half. The Sixth Sense features some classic horror movie moments, but a pukey Mischa Barton ceases to be frightening as soon as Haley Joel Osment starts making deliveries for her. Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact––based on his short film from last year’s Sundance fest––suffers from a similar problem. It’s a ghost story that starts out with a nerve-jangling bang, but once it starts to delve into its central mystery, it has a hard time sustaining the tension and suspense of its opening act. Which is too bad, because the first 30 minutes of The Pact are scary as hell.
McCarthy’s screenplay jumps right into it. After their mother’s death, two sisters agree to meet at their old childhood home to take care of her affairs. But when Annie (Caity Lotz) arrives at the house, her older sister Nicole has vanished. A few days later, Annie’s cousin Liz comes to visit, only to vanish in the house as well. Without divulging any details, the first act culminates with Annie being scared completely shitless and driven from the house.
You can credit the director for the movie’s more frightening moments. McCarthy is an avowed horror movie lover, something that’s readily apparent in his seemingly effortless ability to stage a good scare. As a longtime horror enthusiast, I pride myself in being able to see a movie scare coming from a mile away. But more than once, McCarthy managed to jolt the living shit out of me. And I love him for it.
Just as I was preparing myself for a wild ride, The Pact started pumping the brakes. Annie is questioned by a police detective (an appropriately grizzled Casper Van Dien), who tries to convince her to return to the house to help him investigate. Annie refuses, eventually turning to a meth-addled psychic (Haley Hudson) for help. The plot takes an intriguing turn when a possible link to a long-active serial killer is introduced. But McCarthy simply can’t match the scares of that crackerjack first act. The rest of the movie is effective, don’t get me wrong, and the always adorable Caity Lotz is a strong central character. But while the unfolding mystery remains engrossing, it apparent that The Pact has already shot its wad.