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Based on an earlier short of the same name, writer-director Nicholas McCarthy’s debut full-length, The Pact (2012), is an effective, if overly familiar, little haunted house chiller that manages to distinguish itself by dint of its austere atmosphere, focus on mystery and mood over gore and a twist ending that’s massively entertaining, if more than a little nonsensical. While nothing about the film is exactly revolutionary, the overall quality certainly bodes well for the rest of McCarthy’s burgeoning career.

After vowing to put as much distance between her abusive mother and herself as possible, Annie (Caity Lotz) finds herself returning to her childhood home under less than auspicious circumstances. Annie’s much-detested mother has just passed away and, under no small amount of duress, she’s come home for the funeral, mostly to appease her sister, Nichole (Agnes Bruckner), and see her adorable niece, Eva (Dakota Bright).

When she gets home, however, Annie discovers that Nichole, a former drug addict, has seemingly vanished into thin air, leaving Eva under the care of cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins). Annie assumes that her sister has relapsed but there’s just something about her old home that doesn’t sit quite right. When Liz vanishes under similar circumstances, Annie is convinced that something sinister is going on right under her nose.

As she investigates the history of her family and childhood home, Annie draws the attention of local sheriff Bill Creek (Casper Van Dien), a pensive, kind-hearted lawman who knew Nichole from her wild, druggie days. She also enlists the aid of Stevie (Hayley Hudson), a mysterious, blind, trailer-park medium who makes house calls along with her sketchy, paranoid brother, Giles (Sam Ball). Stevie detects a ghostly presence in the house, some kind of maligned specter who’s only seeking justice for its untimely end. She also detects something much crueler and more malignant, however, a festering, suffocating evil known only as “Judas.” Who (or what) is Judas? How, exactly, is Annie and her family connected to the tragedies at their old home? Will Annie be able to bring peace to the dead or will she find herself joining them?

Although there’s nothing about McCarthy’s debut that screams “instant classic,” it still ends up being a highly likable, well-made and effective film, albeit one with plenty of cheesy moments, overly familiar plot elements and more than a few outright holes. Caity Lotz is effective as Annie, bringing the right mixture of hard-edge, spunk and insecurity to the mix: she certainly doesn’t vault herself into the company of luminaries like Jaime Lee Curtis or Sigourney Weaver but she more than holds her own and gives us a (fairly) level-headed hero to hang our hats on.

The supporting cast ranges from dependable to slightly over-the-top, with Van Dien underplaying his role to the point of mumblecore, while Hudson and Ball have quite a bit of fun as the oddball, white trash mystics. Hudson, in particular, is suitably ethereal and brings a really odd, interesting quality to her performance as the blind psychic. For his part, Mark Steger brings a weird, lurching and almost insectile physicality to his performance as Judas, making him quite the memorable villain, even if he never utters a single line of dialogue. Just the sight of Steger hanging around in the background of various shots is enough to chill the blood and McCarthy gets good mileage out of it.

One of The Pact’s biggest strengths is its focus on the mystery aspect of the narrative, rather than a simple rehashing of moldy haunted house tropes. While McCarthy’s script certainly isn’t comparable to something like Silence of the Lambs, it definitely recalls Vincenzo Natali’s equally modest and effective Haunter (2013), another indie horror film that prided atmosphere over effects. There are still plenty of traditional haunted house scares, of course: people get pulled backwards by invisible forces, doors open and close on their own, lights turn on and off, sinister forms appear in the background while our heroes look in the opposite direction…basically “Ghosts 101.” For the most part, however, these end up being the film’s weakest moments (the invisible forces aspect, in particular, is so old that it sweats dust): when we’re following Annie on her quest for knowledge, the film is an altogether more interesting, tense and driven affair.

Another aspect of The Pact that separates it from its contemporaries is the big, Shyamalan-esque twist that pops up during the climax. While I would never dream of spoiling the surprise, the whole thing tends to make imperfect sense under closer inspection (it presupposes, for one thing, that a key character is either completely deaf or incredibly stupid, neither of which seems to be the case) but it ends the proceedings with a gonzo flourish that’s a lot of fun, if rather silly.

For the most part, I quite enjoyed The Pact, although it was certainly nothing I hadn’t seen before. When the film is silly, it can be quite silly: the scene where Annie draws a Ouija board into the floor and proceeds to contact a spirit is a real howler, as are most of the parts where Annie is shoved around by empty air. When the atmosphere, mood and languid pace all mesh, however, The Pact has plenty of genuinely chilling moments: the scene involving the ghostly photograph is fantastic, as is the one where Bill and Annie discover the hidden room. Any and all of Stevie’s scenes have a genuinely weird, otherworldly quality to them and the finale (minus the eye-rolling coda) is a real corker.

McCarthy would follow-up his debut with At the Devil’s Door (2014), which I’ve yet to see, along with an entry in the upcoming horror-anthology Holidays, which has been on my must-see list since it was announced. If McCarthy can continue to tweak his formula here, replacing some of the overly familiar material with stuff that’s a bit more singular and unique, he stands a good chance of blazing his own trail through the horror wasteland.