It Came From Toronto After Dark: The Pact

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been lurking at the Toronto After Dark film festival’s summer screenings (if you’re in the GTA there’s still a chance to catch the second night of screenings on July 11 – Detention and V/H/S).  Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration.  Most of the films the festival showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.
Roleplaying games helped foster an unhealthy love of monsters, which hooked me at an early age to genre films, which in turn help to inform my tabletop games (in a weird kind of feedback loop).  This ongoing series of articles takes these influences and mashes them together to create a strange hybrid I call It Came from the DVR (although I seem to be in the theatre more often than in front of the television, but I’m not complaining – they have better snacks).

The Pact

After their estranged mother’s death, Annie’s sister convinces her to return to the family home and help put the estate in order.  A reluctant Annie arrives only to find her sister missing and a growing, frightening supernatural presence.  Emotionally raw, with plenty of reminders of her painful childhood, Annie attempts to uncover the mystery of her sister’s disappearance.

Solidly Delivers on the Creeps

The Pact isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind with originality (and the most clever parts of the script are the things I thought were the weakest – more on that below) but it does what it does extremely well and that’s deliver an extraordinarily creepy atmosphere.  It’s got all the trappings audiences have come to expect from supernatural suspense films: eerie figures moving off screen from the corner of the frame, apparitions suddenly appearing behind the protagonist, a medium who goes into paroxysms of terror when she enters the house, spirit photography and, of course, a Ouija board that moves on its own.  Nothing ground-breaking.  Then again, those tropes are repeated so often in the genre because they work, and writer/director Nicholas McCarthy knows how to use them effectively.  For example, McCarthy does an excellent job letting the audience know that a certain door in the house is very bad, just through the use of composition, music and the reaction of Annie.  It’s a great technique that is hard to pull off well (the 1963 version of The Haunting is another great example), but one that is excellent at ramping up the tension.  That build-up is essential in supernatural suspense because the actual jump-out-at-you scares are sparse; you’re kept glued to the screen by the threat that something bad could happen at any minute – and McCarthy uses this to make a dated suburban bungalow seem as creepy as on old gothic manor.
McCarthy’s best ally is actress Caity Lotz in the role of Annie.  Lotz’s ability to project the character’s emotional scars, without tons of script exposition, gives Annie an unexpected depth that I found engaging and sympathetic.  She was also fantastic at supercharging her character with the kind of expressive fear that really sucks the audience in – you can get away with just standing there and hysterically screaming in a slasher (they’re supposed to be a bit cartoony) but suspense thrives on authentic emotion.  Lotz’s reactions felt real, and I almost cheered when during her first encounter with the supernatural, she reacts by blindly lashing out at her attacker and getting the hell out of the house as fast as she possibly can.  I really hope she continues to work in the horror genre.
While I was hooked into the creep fest that was the first three-quarters of this film, I felt that the last act of The Pact fell short.  Much of the creepiness of the movie flows from not knowing, but the inevitable reveal of the film`s mystery robs The Pact of its scariest elements (which is the inherent trap of any mystery – not revealing anything would have been even worse).  During the film’s climax when I should have been biting my nails, I almost felt kind of safe, since the sense of dread McCarthy had built up so well was completely dissipated (see more under the spoiler tag).  The Pact is not alone in making this kind of mistake; I felt that to a lesser extent even Insidious suffered from this, so McCarthy’s work is at least in good company.
Despite of my complaints, The Pact has enough going for it that I recommend it to those that like the suspense horror genre and don’t need a big scary ending to enjoy a film.  If you’re spending the evening in on a dark and stormy night, I think it would make a great double bill with Stir of Echoes.

As I mentioned previously, the big revelation in The Pact is the film’s most original moment, and is cleverly executed, but is also its weakest point.  Once you realize that the supernatural force is merely trying to warn Annie, and that the real threat to those in the house is decidedly human, the film got a lot less scary.  I might be in the minority, but a mundane flesh and blood killer is much less frightening to me than a haunted house with freaky ghostly manifestations where anyone who spends the night disappears without a trace.
I do have to give kudos to McCarthy for not cheating the plot though; everything about the revelation made sense without invalidating the first three quarters of the film (even the sounds made sense, an excellent little detail I really appreciated).  When I see so much lazy writing on film and TV, especially where any kind of mystery is involved, it’s very refreshing to see something thought through from the beginning.  I just wish it hadn’t sucked all the scariness out of the film for me.

RPG Goodness

The Pact is a great resource for DMs who want to inject some supernatural suspense into their games since it’s a veritable dictionary of the tropes of the genre – and more importantly – shows how to execute them effectively.  As I mentioned in my review (with the example of the sinister door), one of the ways that McCarthy creates suspense is through the use of indirect information.  Incorporating this trick into the DMs toolbox is a little counterintuitive in a game with a long history of ‘read aloud’ boxed text, but is one that can help to create a really creepy atmosphere for the right kind of adventure.  Continuing with the example of the door, a similar situation at the game table might traditionally go something like this:

“The door at the end of the hall radiates palpable waves of fear and dread.  As you move closer the feeling intensifies and you have to clutch your weapons tightly to keep from trembling.  You press on even as every instinct screams that there is something very wrong here…”

There is nothing wrong with running an encounter this way (and it’s a pretty good in-game cue that there’s some kind of fear effect in play without being too gamey), especially if it isn’t pivotal to the adventure.  However, if the door is central to solving a mystery, and if the party are going to pass by the location several times, it helps to build suspense by slowly layering indirect information to the players instead of coming right out and telling them the door is bad.  Here are some examples of indirect information using the aforementioned sinister door:

  • If the characters make a point of keeping the door closed, have them find it open and vice versa.
  • Familiars and animal companions won’t overtly freak out, but always move in such a way that they avoid the door (a Perception check might reveal this to observant characters), and won’t cross its threshold unless forced.
  • Characters walking by the door might get a sudden chill and see their breath in the cold pocket of air.
  • A character who makes a moderate Knowledge (engineering) check realizes the door is in an odd location in relation to the rest of the structure and isn’t something most architects would build.
  • Characters who put their ear up against the door to listen hear someone on the other side whispering things about them, but the room beyond is empty.
  • Instead of their usual effect, divination spells regarding the door result in ominous automatic writing.
  • Characters searching the area who succeed at a hard Perception check notice a single torn and bloody fingernail lodged between the stones of the door’s sill.

Inheriting a Haunted House

The Pact (as well as the Poltergeist series), has another great lesson for DMs – the best hauntings are by multiple spirits with distinct personalities and goals (something especially important in D&D given the way that ghosts work mechanically).  This keeps the PCs on their toes, sows confusion if they assume they are dealing with a single spirit, and helps to up the creep factor by having an in-built narrative (with more than one ghost wandering around there’s got to be some kind of story there).
The easiest (and most classic) way to introduce this kind of adventure into the game is to have one of the PCs inherit property that turns out to be haunted.  Alternatively, the party could be asked by an NPC contact to protect an inherited estate from wandering brigands while they put their affairs in order (and as payment they are welcome to whatever knickknacks and baubles are lying around).
To be a true haunted house, it should be the lair of at least two or more ghosts.  Perhaps in life, one was murdered by the other out of jealousy and the murderer, now a ghost herself, prowls her hard won acquisition to keep intruders out and her crime a secret (and won’t rest as long as her reputation is publicly intact).  The murder victim tries to warn those who spend any time in the house but as a ghost, his communication is limited to the frightful moan ability (and won’t rest until his body is retrieved from its shallow grave in the cellar). If you’ve seen The Pact, then the last quarter of the movie holds a further complication that can be recreated in a haunted house adventure (one that I think would work a lot better in a D&D adventure than it does in the film).

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