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Of all the films that might naturally lead to sequels, I’ll freely admit that Nicholas McCarthy’s modest serial killer/ghost chiller The Pact (2012) would probably be one of the last to come to mind. This isn’t to disparage McCarthy’s film, mind you: although it certainly doesn’t re-invent the wheel, The Pact is well made, entertaining and features a genuinely surprising, if rather nonsensical, climax. It also features a visually striking villain with Mark Steger’s gaunt, silent Judas Killer, which is always a plus in any horror film. For all of that, however, The Pact was still a largely by-the-numbers indie horror film, not radically different from many others in a very crowded field.

This being the “Age of Franchise,” however, it was probably only inevitable that even something as small and self-contained as The Pact would receive a sequel: after all, who could have predicated that something like Final Destination (2000) would be up to the fifth film in its franchise, with two more in the wings? In that spirit, we now find ourselves with The Pact 2 (2014), the continuing adventures of Annie Barlow and her lethal (now deceased) uncle Charles, aka the Judas Killer. While several of the actors from the previous film reappear to reprise their roles, including Caity Lotz and Haley Hudson, one of the personnel who does not return is original writer-director McCarthy. This time around, the reins have been handed over to the writing-directing team of Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath. Does the new film prove that The Pact warrants franchise status or should this have been a one-and-done from the get-go?

Shaking up the original film’s focus, The Pact 2 concerns itself with June (Camilla Luddington), a plucky crime-scene cleaner/aspiring graphic novelist who also appears to be having nightmares about the previous film’s evil Judas Killer. June is dating Officer Daniel Meyer (Scott Michael Foster), the put-upon local cop whose been assigned to a new series of murders that bear plenty of similarities to the Judas Killer’s earlier onslaught. Problem is, Judas has been dead and buried for a week, at this point, so it’s highly unlikely that he’s running around, butchering women and cutting off their heads. Or is it?

That’s just what FBI profiler Agent Ballard (Patrick Fischler) is trying to figure out. An expert (obsessive?) on Judas, he shows up in town to investigate the new crimes, annoy the shit out of Officer Meyer and drop a bomb on June about her lineage. Turns out June’s actual mother isn’t drug-addicted wreck Maggie (Amy Pietz): her real mother was Jennifer Glick, also known as one of Judas’ original victims. After June begins to experience some very similar paranormal happenings at her house, she decides to contact the first film’s hero, Annie Barlow (Caity Lotz), deciding that kindred spirits need to stick together.

Before long, Annie and June are diving headlong back into the Judas case, investigating June’s link to the dead serial killer, as well as the real story behind Jennifer Glick’s murder. Throughout, Ballard hangs out in the margins, acting just oddly enough to make us question his true motives. Has the infamous Judas Killer found some way to return from the dead, hacking and slashing his way straight to June, or are the new murders the handiwork of a sick, sadistic copycat, a twisted individual who looks to Judas as inspiration for his own terrible acts?

All things considered, The Pact 2 is actually a surprisingly good film, certainly equitable to the original, albeit for different reasons. For one thing, it’s an actual sequel: picking up only a week after the events of the first film and featuring several of the original cast members, there’s a genuine sense of continuity here that you rarely find in other indie horror sequels. In some ways, it’s roughly parallel to the close time-frames utilized in Halloween (1978) and Halloween II (1981): despite being made by two different directors, the films feel connected in ways that later entries never would, despite the omnipresent figure of Michael Myers. It’s definitely one of The Pact 2’s biggest assets, especially when we get more of Lotz and Hudson (as well as Mark Steger’s Judas, of course).

Tone-wise, The Pact 2 is also a much different beast than its predecessor. Despite the supernatural elements and inherent ghostly angle, the sequel is, essentially, a serial killer procedural: most of our time is spent with June, Annie and Agent Ballard investigating the case from various angles, either together or separately. We do still get all of the hallmarks from the first film, of course: doors open and close, shadows appear in the background, people are hauled around by unseen forces…you know…the usual. These elements are definitely downplayed, however, even though the sequel is, by definition, much more supernaturally oriented than the original was.

Acting wise, The Pact 2 is on par with the original, probably thanks to the return of actors like Lotz, Hudson and Steger. While the character of June isn’t quite the equal of the first film’s Annie, Luddington gives a solid performance and certainly makes the most of what she’s given. Foster doesn’t make much of an impression as the slightly drippy Officer Meyer, although Fischler seems to be having a blast as the quirky, smart and brutally condescending FBI profiler. There are plenty of hints of Jeffrey Combs’ equally nutty agent from Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners (1996) here and Fischler always stops just short of gobbling the entire scenery buffet, leaving some for the rest of the cast. We also get a very brief cameo from writer/director/Troma-naut Trent Haaga, although it’s not much more than a throwaway bit.

There are problems here, of course: Hallam and Horvath have a dismaying tendency to overdue “mirror gags,” even to the point where we get what (to the best of my memory) might be the first “reverse mirror gag” that I’ve ever seen. There’s also a repetitious quality to the numerous scenes of Ballard pensively reviewing case files: watching a guy flip through papers is probably the least pulse-pounding thing one can see in a horror film and we get quite a bit of that here. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out that the climatic twist here is much less clever and surprising than the one in the first film. While I didn’t call the exact specifics, it was an “either/or” situation, so I had about a 50% shot, either way.

For the most part, The Pact 2 isn’t much different from a lot of direct-to-video/streaming indie horror films, although there’s a general level of care and attention to detail that’s certainly refreshing. Hallam and Horvath have a fairly unfussy style (although June’s numerous “flashes” are always too loud and obnoxious) and if the whole film looks slightly cheaper than the original, it’s never enough to take one out of the action. As a horror film, The Pact 2 is just okay: the ultimate resolution really owes more to the serial killer side of things than the vengeful ghost side, after all, and the haunting aspects are run-of-the-mill, at best. I’m also extremely dubious of the very obvious set-up for an additional entry: at this point, the connection to the original films would have to be so tenuous as to be one of those “in name only” affairs and those are rarely quality films.

That being said, I’ve seen plenty of films much, much worse than The Pact 2. There’s no denying that Steger’s Judas is a great villain and franchises have been hung on much less than that, to be honest. If we’re going to keep seeing permutations of The Pact on into infinity, here’s to hoping that they follow the lead set by the first two: while we’ve already got more than enough brainless sequels out there, we could also use more films that actually have something to say. While The Pact 2 probably won’t end up on any best-of lists, it ends up being a worthy sequel and that, on its own, is worthy of its own list.

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