I previewed this earlier in the year at Sundance, and was looking forward to a creepy, haunted house story oozing in tension and delivering in scares. What's clever about The Pact - which has a lot more going for it than people are giving in credit for - is that it starts out being one thing, terrifying enough in itself as the house is possessed by a restless and seemingly malevolent entity, and then blends into something as equally horrifying. Caity Lotz plays Annie, who returns to her family home after her mother dies at the request of her sister, who then vanishes from the house. After staying there alone waiting for her sister to come back, she begins to sense a supernatural presence in the house, which after nights of paranoia, culminates in the spirit attacking her and driving her out, first to a detective (Casper van Dien) and then to creepy medium Nichole (Agnes Bruckner) where they discover a secret room boarded up in the house which holds terrible memories. The trailer makes it look completely supernatural, and your typical ghost story - although I loved the twist on it being a tiny, badly decorated apartment rather than a sprawling menacing house. It was claustrophobic, and the blackness of some of the rooms terrifying - some of the biggest jumps came from the camera following the visitors around the house. But when the plot shifts subgenres, and it becomes apparent the spirit is trying to warn Annie about the larger evil living in - or rather under - the house, the reality of the horror is, for me, a hugely creepy pay off and you'll never trust the house that you live in again. A competent and promising first effort from writer/director Nicholas McCarthy.
Ti West is the new indie darling of the horror genre, with his acclaimed and terrifying House of the Devil from a couple of years ago, and short film stints in The ABCs of Death and V/H/S (below). But The Innkeepers proves to be his most accessible, from the outset a typical haunted house story (or in this case, falling apart B&B) - but what's successful here is his token long, drawn out waiting style he brings to the plate, and a clever ending which will give much resonance to further viewings. Claire (Sara Paxton, from the CW's short lived The Beautiful Life) and Luke (Pat Healy) are bored housekeepers-slash-amateur ghost investigators, working the final days in the life of the Yankee Pedlar Inn before it is closed down for good, and trying to get substantial proof for their website that the hotel is really haunted by the ghost of suicide bride Madeline O'Malley. The film - split into old fashioned chapters - focuses primarily on Claire, who is brilliantly played by Paxton as a charming over expressive goofball, who dissolves into fandom when one of her favourite actresses checks in for a stay (Kelly McGillis), and cheekily teases her colleague as the two of them play affectionate pranks on one another. But it's her determination turned obsessive nature over the weird noises in the hotel, the history of the ghosts, and the warnings of the actress - now a medium - which drives the film to it's frantic and tragic conclusion. The build up is superb, with almost nothing happening in the first hour, almost lulling you into thinking this is a different genre piece altogether. But when the action kicks in, it blows apart the impending sense of unease into full blown terror. Claire may do some things you'll want to throw your hands up in the air and smack her for, but the narrative is solicitously and astutely spun to make the ending inevitable, instead of a cliche. There's definite layers here, but don't read too much into the film as peeps on IMDB have - it's straightforward, and with so many nods to The Shining I thought we were going to get one final twist - but the ending has already been told to you, if you just listen carefully.
I'm always excited about seeing films that are supposedly so scary they cause people to throw up and pass out at screenings - that's what happened with V/H/S at Sundance earlier this year, and why I've been tracking this film closely for a watch myself. It's an anthology of stories from some of the most prolific young directors working in the genre today, with the clever premise the short films are on old VHS tapes, hidden away in a house a gang of youths break into at the start of the film, whose curiosity to watch what they're stealing gets the better of them. There are five video tapes - here's the lowdown:
1. Amateur Night (dir: David Bruckner) - a group of three lads go out of the town in the aim of pulling some girls and taking them back to their hotel room. Of the two they drunkenly take back with them one passes out almost immediately, whilst the other - with the freakiest set of eyes this millennia - seems into hooking up with all three of them at once.... kinky. Until she becomes a succubus and starts ripping their flesh off with her teeth! This opening scare from Bruckner (The Signal) was well paced and gory, he's very adept with the shaky camera style. Good start.
2. Second Honeymoon (dir: Ti West) - the second tape is the film's most flawed, but personally, best short. It's weird, and twisty, and was the only time I had to hide behind my hands. A young couple embark on a road trip through Nevada, staying in cheap motels, recording the event on their video camera. After an unsettling encounter with a girl knocking on their door at night, the couple are visited in their sleep by a masked invader (above) who - sooooo creepily - turns the camera on to film their actions. The heavy atmosphere contrasted with the ignorant breeziness of the morning after is skin-crawling ("JUST WATCH THE GOD DAMN FOOTAGE!"). The twist is clever, but makes you question what went on before as sorely pointless. So great to watch, but frustratingly puzzling in retrospect.
3. Tuesday the 17th (dir: Glenn McQuaid) - from the high point we then dip down to the lowest part of the electrocardiograph of V/H/S and the weakest story of the five from I Sell The Dead's Glenn McQuaid. From the outset - a group of teens going off on a weekend trip into the woods - the narrative slides into familiar territory and you find yourself relaxing: what could possibly happen here that we haven't seen a billion times before? And almost immediately, the kids start getting bumped off, in uninteresting ways, and it's a relief to know it'll be ending soon as we head to the next instalment.
4. The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger (dir: Joe Swanberg) - onto the strangest of the video tapes, this short is bizarrely directed by Joe Swanberg, who has developed a home in the mumblecore movement (Uncle Kent, Nights and Weekends) and is not a name you would associate with horror - I'm fascinated as to how he joined this project. His contribution is the jumpiest of the lot and has a great supernatural feel to it and ingenious use of Skype to mix up the recording style - but then just takes a giant leap into WTF and loses credence. Bizarre science rather than a horror.
5. 10/31/98 (dir: Radio Silence) - those pesky Americans and their backwards dating - that title is Halloween 1998 for clarity, and tells the story of a group of boys who go on a search to find this amazing party they've been tipped off about, only to find the house from Repulsion with the satanists from House of the Devil upstairs. Probably the most satisfying of all the films, it ends the anthology on a high note even though I'm sure I've seen this in an episode of Supernatural sometime. Surely it's time the trio of directors that make up Radio Silence move onto features?
The ups and downs V/H/S takes as we watch its own content could be wickedly effective if only they were given a clever context, a sinister connection. But the wraparound story, Tape 56 (dir: Adam Wingard), is so awful it tails off before we even get an ending! It's set up brilliantly, with one of the gang watching the tapes whilst the dead owner of the house is slumped in a chair behind him, and only upon the changeover from tape 3 to 4 do we realise the armchair is suddenly empty - smartly, scarily done. But what happens next is just an incoherent mess without a payoff, and the film's sudden ending with the stopping of the fifth short - without concluding the wraparound arc - will leave many including myself a bit cheesed off. Not half as scary as everyone's making it out to be - and who's being sick? The same people who threw up in Cloverfield? - but I enjoyed the thorough and entertaining romp through all the genres of horror, from creature to slasher, even if the premise was better than the end product. I'd recommend for a Halloween night.
V/H/S premieres at Film4's Frightfest tomorrow, Friday August 24th. Tickets available here.