Have you seen The Pact? You'd be forgiven if you skipped over this 2012 horror release due to its generic title and bland poster art. Then again, you'd be missing out on a truly effective chiller.
Nicole Barlow is tying up loose ends after her mother's recent death. She's a recovering drug addict so when she doesn't return phone calls, texts, or emails for a 24-hour period, her sister Annie blames it on a relapse. Then Annie finds Nicole's cell phone in the same closet in which she and her sister were banished when they misbehaved as children. When their cousin Liz vanishes in the middle of the night, Annie starts to suspect that something more sinister is at play.
The Pact uses simple but arresting imagery to startle the viewer. All of the visuals make up a vital part of the narrative; there are no throwaway scares here. Although several of these images continue to haunt the viewer long after the credits have crawled across the screen, what is most important to the story in The Pact is the house.
Many haunted house films tend to be set in old, crumbling Victorian or Gothic mansions which, let's face it, are pretty ominous and imposing on their own. But The Pact isn't exactly a haunted house movie. What makes the film unique is the utterly ordinary quality of the home that resides at the center of the terror. The opening of the film is a slow tracking shot through a narrow hallway that is covered in busy, 1980s style wallpaper. It doesn't seem that creepy at first, but it soon will be.
From the beginning of the action in the film, the house has a distinctly unnerving presence. Filmmaker Nicholas McCarthy uses a specific color palette of yellow and black through the set design and the camera filters, which casts a shadow of queasiness over this very believable place.
Many homes depicted in horror films don't appear real: they're too modern, too clean, too perfect. This is not the case with the Barlow home in The Pact. The furniture is old and threadbare and the carpet and flooring are dingy. Overall, the Barlow home is cluttered and claustrophobic. It looks like the house of someone who recently passed away unexpectedly. It looks real.
There is also a preponderance of religious iconography in the home which suggests that someone in the home was either deeply religious and that such artifacts would ward off some kind of evil. Again, it's subtle but effective; Mrs. Barlow's religious convictions are not mentioned specifically by any of the characters. We only see it in visual terms.
It isn't just that "bad things" happened in the Barlow home, in the form of Mrs. Barlow's abuse of her daughters. It's that something evil literally does reside in this home, in a hidden room that Annie did not know about until now. This isn't the typical "pull the book from the shelf, and it reveals a secret passageway" kind of hidden room. It has been dry-walled and wallpapered over and only shows up in the original blueprints of the house.
Not only does the house in The Pact look like something out of a nightmare - which is further reinforced by that same slow tracking shot through the hallway comprising the bulk of Annie's nightmares in the film - it actually houses a palpable evil in the form of Erik Barlow, who is a serial killer.
Perhaps the film's unimposing title and seemingly uninteresting poster are both perfectly suited for a film that's a lot scarier than it might initially appear.