Monday, October 21, 2019

Hubrisween 2019 :: P is for The Pact (2012)

In an unexceptional house on a nondescript street on the outskirts of San Pedro, California, Nicole Barlow is struggling with finalizing the funeral arrangements and settling the estate of her estranged mother, Trudy. Looking for help, Nicole (Bruckner) calls her younger sister, Annie, to see when she will be arriving. But Annie has no intention of attending the funeral or ever returning to the house they grew up in with their abusive mother. Like their father not long after she was born, when Annie cut out she never looked back.

Now, there’s a lot of family baggage unpacked in this heated exchange; like how Annie is surprised Nicole is even there, given her history of disappearing on a bender when things got difficult. But Nicole counters, saying things have been different since the birth of her daughter, Eva, and she’s been clean and sober for nearly five years running. But a lot is left unspoken, too, as just the mere mention of what their mother used to do them in terms of corporal punishment is enough to end the phone call before they get into too many details about what happened to them in a certain closet.

With that, an agitated Nicole opens her laptop and starts a video Skype session with her cousin, Liz (Perkins), who is babysitting Eva (Bright), hoping to say goodnight to her daughter. But the unsecured wi-fi she’s pirating off a neighbor isn’t very strong and Nicole starts to move around the house with the laptop, trying to find a few more bars. The electricity seems to be on the fritz, too, as the lights constantly flicker on and off as she wanders throughout the house. And when Nicole finally finds a hot spot and reconnects, Eva only manages to ask who is that standing behind her mommy before the signal craps out again. Startled as something brushes up against the back of her neck, Nicole turns around but no one is there. However, there’s a door now open that was closed before. Putting the laptop down, Nicole slowly inches toward the door and opens it further, which reveals nothing but darkness. Darkness that seems to swallow her whole when she steps inside.

Cut to a few days later, when a girl on a motorcycle pulls into the driveway of the Barlow house. Removing her helmet, Annie Barlow (Lotz) notes her sister’s car is still in the driveway before entering the two bedroom bungalow, where nothing has changed since about 1978, furnishings, avocado tones, wall paper, carpet, and nautical-themed decor wise. No one answers when she shouts for her sister. And her voicemail is full of frantic messages from Liz, worrying about Nicole. (Odds are good Liz’s prodding is the only reason Annie’s even here.) 

Taking in the scene, Annie calls Liz, assuring her this is just what Nicole always does, run off, and she will eventually turn up, like she always did. When she speed dials Nicole next, Annie hears her cell phone ringing and traces the sound to what turns out to be the dreaded closet alluded to earlier -- which turns out to be the same doorway Nicole disappeared into. But now, in the light of day, the closet is empty, except for the buzzing phone. Then, more noises lead Annie into their old shared bedroom, where a jewelry box has fallen to the floor dislodging a set of keys.

And later that night, as she fitfully sleeps, a strange presence seems to move throughout the house, audibly breathing and murmuring as it goes. A clatter in the kitchen awakens Annie, who finds the fridge open and several food items scattered on the floor, and then a picture of her mother falls from the wall and cracks open on the hallway floor, which reveals it was folded in half and was actually a picture of her mother and another woman in a bright floral dress. So much for getting any sleep tonight.

The next day, Annie attends her mother’s funeral but can barely bring herself to look at the body resting in the casket. Nicole fails to show up. When the services conclude, she meets up with Liz and Eva and they adjourn back to the house. As the evening wears on and Annie unearths an old pack of smokes, which taste like she’s fifteen, but quickly stubbs it out still fearful of what her mother would do if she caught her smoking in the house. When Liz asks if it was really that bad growing up, Annie says whatever you’re thinking on a scale of 1 to 10, double it, and then add 30. And the only reason Annie is even here, so they’re clear, is to find Nicole.

Later that night Annie’s sleep is once more interrupted by bad dreams of a man weeping in her old room -- or is this a repressed memory of some kind? Meantime, someone or something is prowling around the house again and eventually wakes up Liz, who startles at a ghostly shadow filling her door frame. Then, Annie is awoken by her phone chiming, which shows a new location has been pinned in Google maps. And as the lights start flickering, some thumping draws her to the bedroom where Liz was sleeping -- only she’s not there. Suddenly, the dreaded closet door blows open and an unseen, ghostly force violently seizes Annie and drags her kicking and screaming toward it.

After some fierce struggling, Annie is able to fend off this phantom attacker, breaks free, and flees outside. And she would probably still be running, too, if not for the sound of Eva crying from inside. Coming back in through the kitchen, Annie arms herself with a knife and heads for Eva’s room when the malevolent force seizes her again, tossing her around as if in a tantrum, and then slams her into a hallway wall, knife first, which remains embedded in the drywall as she struggles to reach Eva, whom her aunt scoops up and holds tight as she fights her way back outside and then runs off into the night, away from whatever evil haunts the Barlow house -- be it a ghost or something even worse...

Nicholas McCarthy started making films with his Super-8 camera at the age of 10, imitating the monster movies he saw on the syndicated Creature Double Feature program out of Boston. A lifelong horror and offbeat movie fan, as McCarthy got older he was drawn to the films of John Carpenter, David Cronenberg and George Romero as well as European directors like Dario Argento and Sergio Martino and started incorporating their styles into the short films he produced after graduating with a degree in film from State University of New York at Purchase (SUNY Purchase).

Moving to Los Angeles around 2000, McCarthy, while still producing his own short films, worked briefly for a video company that produced “making of” documentaries for feature films released on DVD, where he worked on featurettes for Robocop (1987), The Princess Bride (1987), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Starship Troopers (1997). He also helped form the Alpha 60 Film Collective with several other ardent cinephiles, who then collaborated on making more short films to be featured at the Echo Park Film Center.

Here, McArthy’s film Maid (2004) -- a “Spanish language documentary that evolves into a Korean musical in less than six minutes,” drew the attention of a scout from the Sundance Film Festival, who invited the filmmaker to submit his work to the prestigious showcase. Thus, after crowd-sourcing a budget of around $15,000, McArthy’s next film, Cry for Help (2005), where a dead drug dealer meets a zombified Jesus, premiered at Sundance in 2005. And while McArthy had hoped this would draw enough interest to land him a feature, it did not. Neither did his next submission, Chinese Box (2009). But his third attempt, The Pact (2011), was something different and finally struck a chord.

For his whole life those around him, family and friends, openly wondered when McCarthy was ever going to make a horror movie. Thus far, his shorts had been experimental character studies that teetered toward the avant garde. And while The Pact '12 appears to start out as yet another one of those character studies as two estranged siblings, Adrian and Anna (Sam Ball, Jewel Staite), work to settle the estate of their dead mother. But as the film unfolds, the narrative takes a sharp left turn after the brother leaves and a ghostly unseen hand brushes up against the back of Anna’s neck. From there, the short pretty much echoes what happened to Nicole as Anna is drawn deeper into the house by the flickering lights and odd noises before opening a door and disappearing into the darkness.

McCarthy took it as a good omen when numerous people sought him out after the film’s Sundance premiere and commented on how much it “scared the shit out of them." And sure enough, three days later McCarthy was contacted by Jamie Carmichael, a representative of Content Media Corp. -- Willow Creek (2013), Starry Eyes (2014), Escape Room (2017), who wanted to expand the unsettling short into a feature film. Seems they figured the short was just a teaser and assumed there was already a full script ready to go. But, McCarthy had told the story he wanted to tell and that was it. However, not wanting to bork the deal, he lied, saying he had a script but it needed another draft before shooting. The producers bought this fib and agreed to finance the film for $400,000.

Thus and so, McCarthy spent the next month banging his head against a wall, trying to figure out how he could expand his short to feature length. And what he came up with for The Pact (2012) was a ghost story wrapped up in a grisly murder mystery. And while McCarthy brought back nearly everyone who worked on the short -- cinematographer Bridger Nielson, production designer Walter Barnett, composer Ronen Landa, and editor Adriaan van Zyl, the tone of the feature would be completely different. For while the short dealt with metaphorical dread, McArthy wanted the feature to deal with the literal and physical fright as several family skeletons are shaken loose out of the Barlow house as things unravel like a peeled onion.

And to get to the center of this mystery to find out what happened to Nicole and now Liz will involve some massive spoilers on the righteous plot-twists to come, as McCarthy wears those cinematic inspirations I mentioned earlier on his sleeve as these events unfold, drawing from Carpenter and the Italian gialli of Argento especially (-- there’s even a bottle of J 'n' B scotch hidden in plain sight, let me know if you find it); and not just their protracted murder set-pieces either, as the film takes it’s own sweet time and is very deliberate as reality and memory collide, leading to an unreality where it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins at times thanks to some preternatural shenanigans as Annie reports what happened at the house to the police.

She gives her missing persons statement to Detective Bill Creek (Van Dien), and the strange circumstances surrounding them, who wants her to go over it all one more time. This pisses Annie off, but he asks for patience. Taken from his perspective, after reading the report of the officers who responded to the scene, with the signs of struggle, the knife embedded in the wall, ghosts or no ghosts, he asks Annie what that sounds like to her because it sure looks like a garden variety domestic dispute to him. Thus, suspected of foul play, as she storms out of the police station Creek warns Annie not to leave town until he sorts this all out.

After checking in on Eva, who was turned over to Child Protective Services until they can locate her mother, Annie checks into a hotel, where her attention is once more drawn to her phone, which shows the pinned address on a map. Typing this info into her sister’s laptop, she goes to street view which shows a snapshot of an open field surrounded by several trees. But in the middle of the blurry photo stands the mystery woman in the floral dress pointing toward something out of frame. And after zooming around the photo, the woman is now looking directly at her which causes Annie to slam the laptop shut.

Later, after dreaming of the weeping man in her room again, Annie goes for a soda, returns to her room from the vending machines, only to see the woman in the floral dress lying on one of the beds, her decapitated head hanging from a lamp by the tethered hair. Frozen, as if trapped in amber, Annie suddenly wakes up.

I honestly don’t know how far this dream goes back but neither does Annie, really. And after an absurdly comedic interlude which short-circuits her efforts to just skip town, Annie gets proactive and starts digging through Nicole’s stuff for any clues, which includes papers and documents concerning her mother’s estate complete with a blueprint of the house that reveals a small third bedroom she had no idea existed. And stranger still, the knife left embedded in the wall marks exactly where the door should be.

And with this clue, which she feels solidifies her case for supernatural malfeasance, Annie brings Creek to the house, removes the knife and breaks away the drywall revealing a locked door, which is remedied with those keys she found earlier. Inside, the room is barren except for a lonely bed frame and a bare box spring. 

However, they do discover several peepholes that allow access to observe every other room in the house. Annie feels the ghost of her mother is behind all of this: the lights, the noises, the keys, the knife, as if leaving breadcrumbs, and is trying to show her something. Something about the woman in the floral dress. But Creek doesn’t buy this, saying it’s weird, sure, but proves nothing.

Thus, with no help coming from the police, and needing answers from the beyond, Annie seeks out a blind girl she knew in high school named Stevie (Hudson), a clairvoyant, to try and contact her mother. Stevie agrees to help, and with her overly protective brother, Giles (Ball), they return to the house. And while Stevie picks up nothing from the mother, she feels a terrible presence in the closet, someone “taking in all the light.” She then bursts into tears, “seeing” what used to go on in there with the Barlow girls.

Next, they move into the secret bedroom where Stevie is overwhelmed by whatever lurks in there, saying it’s trying to hide something, something it didn’t want anyone to know before collapsing on the floor, where she starts gibbering the word Judas over and over. And then the ghost tries to pull Stevie under the bed; and as Giles and Annie struggle to break her free, Annie sees the woman in the floral dress floating in the air above them. Stevie senses her, too, but has no answer when asked who she is. And with the malignant house taking a terrible toll on his sister, Giles violently pushes Annie away and they leave her behind with more questions than answers.

And so, Annie starts plugging those questions into online search engines, starting with Judas. And after sorting through all the biblical stuff she finds a more relevant and local entry about an unidentified serial killer who went by the handle of Judas, who was active between 1975 and 1989, with seven victims attributed to him before he up and vanished. Digging further, Annie finds a list of victims and recognizes the last one, Jennifer Glick (Wright), as the woman in the floral dress.

And with this being the internet, of course there are crime scene photos, which show the decapitated victim wearing the very same dress, her head hanging from a drain pipe by the hair, lucidly echoing her dream in the hotel. Thus, Annie realizes it’s not her mother who is haunting the Barlow house. And the ghost wasn’t attacking her but trying to show her something. Now to find out what and why.

Meantime, Creek goes over the photos he took at the Barlow house; and one in particular, which shows a ghostly hand pointing toward the closet. And in a really cool scene, he returns to the house and while he can’t see the hand with the naked eye, it’s visible through the camera’s viewfinder. And stranger still, as he circles around it, he gets a full 360-degree view of the partial apparition. 

Moving to the closet, he finds what looks like a loose board on the wall and starts to pry it open but leaves it be when he hears someone else moving around the house. Drawn into the girl’s old bedroom, Creek is ambushed by an unseen assailant, stabbed in the neck, severing his carotid, and quickly bleeds out.

Meanwhile, Annie is slowly piecing things together and will at last get to the truth. Arriving at the address the ghost left on her phone, she deduces Jennifer Glick was pointing to her mother’s church. Inside, she is drawn to the photographs of the annual church picnic which always took place in the meadow on the map and where the folded photo was taken -- most notably the one from 1989, where her mother is standing by Jennifer, who is not only wearing the familiar dress but also wears a cross on a chain. The exact same cross and chain Annie’s mom gifted her when she was a child and still wears to this very day! 

Also lurking in the photo is a man by the name of Charles Barlow. Unsure of who this is, more digging reveals Charles was her uncle, a longshoreman, who also disappeared around 1989.

And as it all starts to fall together, Annie calls Stevie to confirm a few things. Her mother did something awful that she kept hidden for decades. And now, the ghost of Jennifer Glick is trying to show Annie what that was. And until she figures out what that is exactly, Annie will never be rid of the pestering presence. And to do that, Stevie instructs Annie to hold a seance in the house. 

Using a homemade Ouija board scrawled on the floor of the hidden room and the cross as a planchette, Annie confirms the ghost is Jennifer Glick and she was killed by Judas. When asked what does she want Annie to know, the possessed board just finished spelling out the word “below” when a trapdoor suddenly pops open underneath the bed. And as she scrambles for cover behind some ripped up curtains still hanging over the sealed windows, the living skeleton that was Charles Barlow emerges from the crawlspace. Unaware Annie is there, he opens a secret panel and crawls out of the room, through the dreaded closet, and into the house proper.

Obviously, this is the final piece to the puzzle. Charles Barlow was the Judas killer. And as the old criminal axiom goes, don’t shit where you eat unless you wanna get caught. But Barlow couldn’t help himself and killed a close family acquaintance, Jennifer Glick. His sister, Annie’s mother, most likely knew he was a killer all along and, to protect him from getting caught, walled up the room and Barlow spent the last twenty plus years hiding in plain sight. But with his sister no longer there to take care of him, Barlow was left unsupervised and the killings started anew. And all the while, the ghost of Jennifer Glick was trying to show anyone who ventured into the house the danger lurking all around them.

This is all confirmed when Annie shines her flashlight into Barlow’s spider-hole, revealing Creek’s body. Spotting his holstered gun, Annie lowers herself into the crawlspace, where she also makes the grisly discovery of Nicole’s severed head hanging by the hair (-- and though we never see her, Liz most likely met the same fate. And the implication here is pretty horrible if you think about it, as Jennifer was trying to save Liz earlier when pulling Annie toward the closet.) She retrieves the gun, returns to the bedroom, but makes too much noise, drawing Barlow back into the room. And while she does manage to get a shot off it goes wide, allowing Barlow to knock her out.

When she awakens in the closet, Annie is bound hand and foot and her hair is knotted around a drain pipe (-- I’m assuming the same way mom used to do it). And as she struggles to free herself, Annie manages to weaponize a wire coat hanger and gets the door open, which reveals Barlow coming for her with his trusty knife. 

A violent struggle follows, where Annie manages to stab Barlow with the wire, who falls back and drops his knife. Using this to hack her hair loose, once free, the ghost of Jennifer Glick seizes the girl and pulls her back into the hidden bedroom near the discarded gun.

Grabbing it, Annie once more fires at Barlow and this time the bullet catches him right between the eyes. Then, with her spectral covenant fulfilled at last, after a triumphant whoop, the ghost of Jennifer Glick vacates the house at long last.

In the aftermath, Annie settles the estate and sells off the house. And as she leaves for the last time, Annie finally breaks down and grieves for her sister and cousin. And in her efforts to move on and put the past behind her, Annie reaches out and takes custody of Eva. 

What the future holds for them, well, they’ll just have to figure that out as they go. Still, these past events have left their mark, and the house and it’s new resident ghost still haunt her dreams as we fade out.

Back in 1973 author Jack Vance published his novel Bad Ronald, which tells the tale of Ronald Wilby, a teenager who lives alone with his divorced mother. Confused by his burgeoning sexual urges, Wilby attempts to rape a girl, killing her in the process. Leaving evidence behind, he confesses what he did to his over-protective mother, who takes it upon herself to hide him in a walled off room, where he remains during the day and comes out at night through a trapdoor. This works until his mother unexpectedly dies. And then things get even more complicated when a family with three daughters move into what they think is a vacant house. 

Vance’s novel was adapted a year later into a fairly intense and slightly disturbing made for TV movie of the same name, which went on to scar many adolescents of the era who tuned in for it; and I’m pretty sure one of them was Nicholas McCarthy.

Yeah, I failed to mention this earlier because that would’ve been way too big a spoiler for anyone aware of the novel or film adaption. Well, that, and another huge influence on The Pact I failed to mention was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) as it’s really easy to draw a line between the characters and plot: Marion Crane and Nicole enter a strange place and disappear; their sisters, Lila Crane and Annie come looking for them and run into a mystery; two detectives, Arbogast and Creek get too close to the truth and wind up stabbed in the face; and turns out it wasn’t really the mother all along.

But when combining all of these influences -- some of them painfully obvious at times, McCarthy manages to spin them into something truly unique. I love his patience as he lays out the puzzle pieces, and I love how even then nothing is completely spelled out for the audience, challenging us to keep up. For one of the hardest things to do in a horror movie these days is to stay ahead of the audience and keep them guessing. And as The Pact unfolded before me, I honestly had no idea what was really going on or where it was headed until McCarthy wanted me to. And I don’t think people realize how rare that is, cinematically speaking.

And what makes this all tick is an arresting performance by Caity Lotz as Annie Barlow. Lotz started her career as a dancer, touring with Avril Lavigne and Lady Gaga. She was also an experienced martial artist familiar with Taekwondo and Krav Maga, as well as being a practitioner of Parkour. And so, when she moved to acting, she performed her own fights and stunts. In fact, I discovered her while watching the TV-series Arrow, where she played the original Black Canary and later the White Canary, instantly fell in love, and started tracking down everything else she’d been in, which is what initially led me to The Pact.

And while her physicality was a boon to the production as her character is constantly ragdolled around by the ghost, her performance shines well beyond that. She’s a damned pitbull, but the truth is in her facial expressions and reactions, which are near perfect -- especially at the end:

When she notices Barlow suffers from Heterochromia (two different colored eyes) like she does, and it sinks in that he was not only her uncle but was most likely she and Nicole’s father as well, adds a whole ‘nother layer of ick on her family dynamic and this forbidden love and incest is probably what drove her mother to do what she did.

According to a later interview, Lotz was only the second person to audition for the role and McCarthy knew right away he had found his Annie. He sure did. But as good as Lotz was, Haley Hudson might’ve been even better as the psychic, who got into her blind character so much people had to lead her around the sets. Petra Wright adds a lot of punch to a pretty thankless role as the ghost, and Mark Stegler really puts the creep into Barlow. And I’m never disappointed when Johnny f@cking Rico, Casper Van Dien, shows up in a movie.

With such a low budget the majority of the special effects were pulled off practically with a digital assist to remove the ropes and wires used to suspend or drag characters around. The production got lucky when they found a house and a church that were about to be torn down, giving them a makeshift studio as the church was converted into many sets. This also allowed them to do whatever they wanted during the production from drilling holes to knocking out walls.

Also, kudos to sound designer Chris Terhune, who wasn’t afraid to let silence speak volumes and really tuned-in the audience to the characters surroundings; and props to production designer Barnett on his work decorating the house, which is, along with the memories associated with it, an essential character to the production, turning something so mundane and grounded into something outright unsettling -- somewhere out of time and place. I also love the invasive use of modern technology to unlock the secrets of the past hidden inside it. And setting all of this morosity at Christmas time makes for a nice juxtaposition of cheer and gloom.

Thus, The Pact is not a traditional haunted house movie but McCarthy uses it as a framing device to tell his story, which is yet another character study as Annie Barlow unravels the present to deal with her past, resulting in a great no-budget thriller I couldn't outguess. The film was released by IFC but barely caused a ripple and kinda quietly disappeared. Too slow, and too deliberate for the Paranormal Activity (2007) crowd, nor loud and gruesome enough to match up with Insidious (2010) or The Conjuring (2013). This, is too bad. For in my eyes, The Pact is one of the greatest horror murder mystery ghost story ever put to film that you’ve probably never even heard of. Until now.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween! 26 Days! 26 Films! 26 Reviews! And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage as The Fiasco Brothers and Yours Truly countdown from A to Z all October long! That's 16 reviews down with 10 more to go! Up Next: The Lifetime Original to End All Lifetime Originals.

The Pact (2012) Preferred Content :: IFC Midnight / EP: Jamie Carmichael / P: Ross M. Dinerstein / CP: Jaime Burke / AP: Sam Zuckerman / D: Nicholas McCarthy / W: Nicholas McCarthy / C: Bridger Nielson / E: Adriaan van Zyl / M: Ronen Landa / S: Caity Lotz, Casper Van Dien, Haley Hudson, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Agnes Bruckner, Sam Ball, Dakota Bright, Petra Wright, Mark Steger

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