About midway through most ghost stories, there begins to set in an unshakeable sense of dread, when one comes to fear that moment at which the mystery is frittered away, the inevitable third-act reveal of the man behind the curtain, the face under the mask, the writing on the wall. The story pivots, often awkwardly; it’s explained that the letters in the killer’s name, rearranged just so, spell out the name of the hero, or we learn that the creaky manor’s former tenants had been brutally dismembered by a madman who, surprise, was never found (hint: he’s behind you). The great shroud of unknowing dissipates; the answers, we realize, are infinitely less frightening than the clues that lead us to them. And so when a character swings by her small town’s local library to sift through old newspapers stored on microfilm, it’s all but guaranteed that what she finds will elicit more eye-rolls and groans than genuine scares. (I haven’t done the research, but I suspect more horror films have been derailed in public libraries than perhaps any other location.)
The Pact, a new haunted-house movie by first-time filmmaker Nicholas McCarthy, exchanges microfilm and the library for a web search and an iPhone, a gesture of appreciable ingenuity. But updating a cliché doesn’t necessarily obviate its most wearying effects, even if its novelty seems refreshing. Thus, after two acts of exasperating portent, a familiar pressure bears down on The Pact, threatening to dispel the tension it’s worked so hard to conceive. McCarthy, for his part, struggles valiantly against the third act’s sharp decline, but the truth is that his own talent has painted him into a corner: The film’s first hour-plus finds him building suspense so capably that the release simply can’t measure up.
Consider, for instance, a recurring shot of an open doorway—the sort that hangs there ominously, closed only moments before. McCarthy’s instinct is to show only inky blackness behind it, lingered on or zoomed toward, and he’s savvy enough not to squander it with a cheap jump cut or sudden “boo”-scare. In The Pact‘s slight but effective opening scene, a young mother chats with her little girl over webcam, walking through the house with her laptop to find a better WiFi signal. The “gotcha” moment here is telegraphed well in advance, but the premise of the scare is clever, and the money shot is nothing more than that eerily open doorway, impenetrable blackness behind it. McCarthy gets a great deal of mileage out of a prop and a shadow—surely an invaluable skill when directing a haunted-house film. But convention dictates that eventually the lights must be turned on, and what was really behind that doorway is inherently less terrifying than the limitless possibilities of what could have been. When The Pact descends, finally, from suggestion to explication, the scares regrettably slink away.
Much as the BBC’s Sherlock retained the spirit of classic Conan Doyle while pointedly teaching Holmes how to text, The Pact is a traditional horror film littered with contemporary calibrations. Here ghosts haunt laptops as readily as they do hallways, dropping clues as iPhone GPS pins and, in perhaps the gimmick’s cleverest implementation, appearing as a smeared apparition via an approximation of Google Street View. Conspicuous modernisms of this kind could have easily registered as missteps (you may recall the web-horror alarmism of Fear Dot Com, though most would prefer not to), but McCarthy’s evident conviction in the material goes a long way toward selling it as serious. So, too, does the quality of the central performances: Mad Men‘s Caity Lotz, a trained dancer and martial artist, has a natural physicality and grace that make her an ideal final girl, and Casper Van Dien, as the skeptical but caring cop, brings a surprising degree of warmth to a character who’s otherwise underused (somehow, when we weren’t looking, Van Dien aged from teen heartthrob to grizzled noir-type, and here he has the hurt-behind-the-eyes look of mid-career Bruce Willis). All of this does, alas, collapse under the weight of its own built-in expectations—a failure made more damning by the caliber of what precedes it. But its slow burn is nevertheless appealing, and of course rather scary, until the point at which the rug is pulled out from under us.