Only six months in, 2012 has been a strong year for the horror movie genre. Already, fans of scary cinema have been blessed with British filmmaker Ben Wheatley’s pitch-black, extremely visceral Kill List; Australian writer-director Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones, an unruly and invigorating mix of John Hughes sensibilities and gory sadism; and The Cabin in the Woods, the smartest meta-horror pic since Scream and one that’s destined for cult classic status.
The common denominator amongst those films, aside from overall excellence, is the filmmakers’ partiality toward the hardcore. Thus, it’s a nice, welcome change of pace to settle into the quieter, much more suggestive atmosphere of The Pact (in limited theaters today, through IFC Midnight), the supernatural feature film debut from writer-director Nicholas McCarthy.
Since its well-received premiere at January’s Sundance Film Festival, The Pact has been a hot topic within the genre community, and for good reason. It’s a creepy little chiller about a rebellious young woman named Annie (Caity Lotz) who, having returned home to attend her mother’s funeral, investigates the history of her childhood home in order to figure out why her sister and cousin have disappeared. Starting off in a ghostly territory before shifting gears into a more reality-based tale of homicide, The Pact takes cues from both Japanese and Italian approaches to horror while also establishing a unique combustibility.
Complex recently caught up with McCarthy to discuss The Pact’s origins as a short film, why the process of hearing ghost stories can be just as scary as experiencing paranormal activity, and how one classic bit of ethereal rape inspired one of his movie’s best scenes.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
The Pact originates from a short film that made a big splash at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2011. Why did you go the shorter route at first?
Well, really, the short film came out of being frustrated . I’d been writing screenplays for a few years, and making short film after short film, and I had just a tiny bit of success with both of those things. As a screenwriter, I had a couple of tiny jobs, but I could never justify, at the end of the year, calling myself a “screenwriter” as an occupation. [Laughs.] Some shorts I’d made had played at Sundance and some other good festivals, but it was hard to get to the place where I wanted to be, which, of course, was making feature films.
All I really knew was that whenever I made stuff, it made me happy. [Laughs.] The Pact short, which is a different kind of movie from The Pact feature film, was made not really as a teaser or a trailer for a feature, but it was just a way for me to explore my interest in horror movies. I had spent my whole life being obsessed with horror movies, but I’d never made one; all of the short films I’d made previous to The Pact were character studies that you’d describe more as avant-garde, offbeat art films.
So I decided to make a little 10-minute ghost story, and it was really inspired by the way people told ghost stories in real life. And essentially the first half of that short is someone telling a story, about feeling the presence of this ghost, and the second half of the short is this ghost kind of appearing, though it’s unclear whether it’s real or not, or whether this woman had invented it.
I didn’t have any plans for the thing other than me wanting to make this movie that I had in my head, but the short got into Sundance. I finished it, a couple of weeks later it premiered at the festival, and a few days after that I had a meeting with a company called Content Media, and they said, “We want to turn this into a feature.” They asked me, “Is there a feature script?” I lied to them and said yes. [Laughs.] I told them that I had this whole big plan for a feature script, but that I had to go and do another draft of it.
So I went away and wrote the script in six weeks. Turned it in, they said, “We love it, let’s do it,” and two months later I was casting the movie. Shortly after that, we shot it. We edited it in six weeks, we did the sound mix in a week, and then two weeks later the feature premiered at Sundance 2012. [Laughs.] So, it was pretty much a whirlwind.
So when you made the short film, you had no bigger ideas about where the story could go, or about a deeper mythology?
Well, the short was a contained movie, but it was all about not explaining everything. That extended itself into what the feature film became, but I think the people who saw the short from Content Media just assumed that I had a bigger story. [Laughs.] There was so much that seemed to be left out, and that was on purpose and was one of the things that, I think, aided the film’s atmosphere and made it really creepy. You’re always trying to guess what was going on with these characters.
I think what helped me write a script in record time is that I had been writing screenplays for about four or five years before. I had kind of taught myself how to write, and I had been writing genre films. I love horror movies, I’ve always loved horror movies, so it was just time. I got this opportunity and I was like, to myself, “I have been practicing for this for such a long time.” So it all just appeared on the page.