More horror movies set in the 21st century ought to integrate technology into their scares as well as Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact. Forget about the heroine with a dead cell-phone battery; it’s much creepier and more of-the-now for her cell phone to light up while she’s sleeping, displaying mysterious global-positioning maps. That unnerving little visual happens a couple of times in The Pact, an atmospheric haunted-house mystery that mixes classically constructed shocks into the world of today. In the opening scene, for example, while a tattooed ex-junkie played by Agnes Bruckner is having a video-chat with her daughter, the little girl looks into the computer’s camera and casually asks her mother, “Who is that man behind you?” And the game is afoot.
When Bruckner disappears, her sister Caity Lotz arrives in their small California hometown to investigate, with the help of local cop Casper Van Dien. The sisters’ mother has just died, leaving behind a mess of paperwork and a tacky, crumbling old house. Though Lotz has unpleasant childhood memories, she feels obliged to learn the truth about her fractured family, even after an occult force starts invading her nightmares, and starts sending her messages via spectral images that can only be seen through a digital-camera viewfinder. Lotz’s resolve is tested when that force—or perhaps something else—starts physically thrashing her about.
The horror in The Pact mixes the supernatural and the “real,” as do the movie’s effects, which combine slick-looking, computer-generated fright sequences with old-fashioned makeup and blood-bags. (One close-up shot of blood spurting across Van Dien’s thick stubble is especially icky, in the best possible way.) Even more effective is the way McCarthy holds on black screens between some scenes, extending the audience’s anxiety for what he’ll reveal when he cuts to the next shot. The Pact plays too loose with its own plot, and burns too slowly in its first half. But the movie’s last half-hour ranges from gripping to terrifying, as Lotz tiptoes around a house riddled with holes, sometimes peering through the gaps and sometimes being watched. So a movie that begins with a more modern kind of surveillance comes down to something brutishly low-tech: just a hole, and an eye.