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.
Yeah, for the first two weeks when I was writing, I remember, I was sort of banging my head against the wall. But I remembered this movie called The Killers, with Burt Lancaster, from the ’40s, and that movie was based on an Ernest Hemingway short story, which was about five pages long, or something like that. So what they did for their movie was, they had the rights to this short Hemingway story, which was essentially a conversation between two characters in a diner, and they used that as the opening for the film and they just kind of invented something to happen afterwards.
When I remembered that film, I said, “Well, why don’t I use the short film as almost a kind a prologue?” And that’s what I did. The real crucial difference between the short and the feature is the tone. The short, really, feels like a movie made by an adult. [Laughs.] And it’s for adults, because it’s so ambiguous. But when I did The Pact feature, I thought about the movie I wanted to see when I was 15 years old; I wanted to make a movie that I, as a 15-year-old, would go to see in a theater and be excited to tell people about, and just be freaked out by. I was channeling that side of myself with the feature, because I just couldn’t repeat myself.
Being that you grew up as a big horror movie fan, what was it specifically about the supernatural, ghostly side of the genre that appealed to you when sitting down to write your first horror film?
When I was growing up, there really weren’t any good ghost story movies. They only really started to get great when the J-horror [Japanese horror] explosion happened, and now they’ve become such a huge part of the genre. The inspiration for The Pact short, though, was more the way people told ghost stories in real life, and that was something that always creeped the fuck out of me as a little kid, and still does. It’s when you sit down with someone and they tell you something happened, and everyone has those stories, whether it’s something that happened to them or that happened to a friend of theirs.
That’s what I was trying to get at with The Pact short, but then when it came time to do the feature, and I decided I was going to make a real straight-down-the-middle horror movie, I thought about the J-horror films, but I actually thought more about a lot of Italian horror movies that I love, like Dario Argento's Suspiria. The thing about Suspiria is, although it’s not a ghost story, it has this atmosphere that makes you think something terrible or demonic is controlling the camera. [Laughs.]
Definitely, Suspiria feels like the weirdest, most unsettling 90-minute nightmare imaginable.
Yeah, and that movie was probably, in a way, the biggest influence on The Pact. I showed Suspiria to my director of photography, and we talked about how the camera in that film is this kind of third-person voice that wanders away from the characters and explores things. You see that in other movies, too, like in John Carpenter’s films. I really wanted to capture that, because, besides the horror subjects of The Pact feature, which are ghosts and a serial killer, it was really important to set that tone.
Tone is really everything in horror movie, I think. You can tell the bad ones from the good ones for that reason, and, as a filmmaker, that’s maybe why they interest me more than other genres. Horror movies are just so cinematic, and there are so many things you can do that you could never get away with if you were making some other kind of movie.
The pacing of The Pact seems very strategic, too—it never feels like you go that long without bringing in some kind of horror moment. The first big scares happen within the first 20 minutes, in fact. The Pact doesn’t go overboard with it, but, at the same time, you never forget what kind of movie you’re watching.
Yeah, and that all comes from the script. In a way, I’m a conservative writer—I’m always keeping mindful of where we are inside this mystery. And that’s what it really is: a mystery. In a mystery, you’re given clues and little hints of where the story is going to lead to, and that was really my job; at the same time, you don’t want to hit people over the head too hard.
There’s a big scare, like you said, about 20 minutes in, and, especially in a big theater, the movie hits you so hard that I fear we almost lose people. [Laughs.] It’s such a shock—all of the sudden, there’s this moment of “Boom!” And I like that, I like figuring out these ways of taking a familiar genre space and kind of nipping and tucking the clues and scares to lead you along somewhere to a place that maybe you didn’t anticipate, or, even if you did anticipated it, it’s not in the way you thought it’d be.
That big scare you’re referencing features some pretty impressive stuntwork, with your lead actress, Caity Lotz, being violently flung around in the air by an unseen force. Was that a difficult sequence to pull off with such humble means?
Well, that was inspired by a movie called The Entity. I’m kind of scared to say that I like that movie, because it’s such a despicable film and has a terrible taste. [Laughs.] That was a studio film, and back then it was like, “Oh, let’s go to the movie theater and either see the new Woody Allen film or this movie about an invisible person who serial-rapes this woman for hours!” But that feeling of being terrorized was what we were going for with that sequence.
Technically, it was hard on Caity, but we were also game for it. The spirit of making the movie was, it was the same core crew that had worked on the short film, and we just wanted to make the scenes these moments where we were giving the audience something different. That was the goal. You never know what’s going to work and what’s not going to work; you just have to go with your instincts.
It required a lot of wire-work. We got this guy who usually requires a fuck-load of money to come in and do that stuff for really cheap; he came down and did the movie for pretty much nothing. What I discovered was, with wire-work on a movie like The Matrix, you’re on a sound stage and it’s all set up in this classy way; on our way, wire-work was basically tying ropes around our actress and throwing her to the floor. [Laughs.] It’s one of the few digital effects in the whole movie, but we then gave that footage to a digital effects artists and he removed the ropes.
We just choreographed it as a little fight scene, which is what I think they did for The Entity; I went back and studied what they did, and they blocked it like a fight scene, except one of the people who’s fighting isn’t there.
Instead of a fancy sound stage, you just had this really quaint, classical-looking suburban house, which actually works really well for the film. It has this familiar domestic vibe, but it has this really interesting touches that give the house a creepy undertone, like that random doggie door in the living room, for instance. Was it difficult to find the perfect house?
The inspiration for the house came directly from the short film, which we shot in the house of an old woman who had recently died. When I wrote the short, I wasn’t exactly sure what the environment should be, and I started to ask around for people I knew who maybe had parents who have lived in the same house for a long time, because that was the sense I wanted to get.
And then I saw this house in San Pedro, CA, and it was loaded with this shag carpet and really weird ’70s, ’60s décor, and it immediately struck a chord with my childhood, and that’s when I realized the house was going to be a major character in the movie.
So when we did the feature, we essentially replicated that with a house that was abandoned. It was about to be torn down, and we decorated it from top to bottom to look like that. We used a lot of that décor and exact stuff from the house in the short when decorating the one for the feature. My production designer and I were really hung up on this idea of a house that was built in the ’60s or ’70s and hadn’t changed.
When people make ghost story movies, they often make the mistake of setting the films in fantastical or Gothic places, but I think it’s much more interesting if it’s set in a very familiar place.
That old-school décor also works on a subtle psychological level. During some scenes, you don’t know if it’s a flashback or if it’s still in the modern-day, and definitely adds to the creepiness.
[Laughs.] It’s funny, though, because it doesn’t actually work with the characters’ ages. I’m 40 years old and my production designer is, like, 50, but these girls in the movie are about 25, and we realized, “Well, they never would have grown up in a house like this.” But we were just like, “Fuck it, it’s such an interesting idea!” Sometimes it just makes sense to favor creepiness in a horror movie.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)