Writer-directors Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath made a little knockout of a movie with 2012’s Entrance, which was described as “mumblecore with stakes.” For now, before they make another original film on the crafty, emotionally rattling levels of their feature debut, they have taken over for Nicholas McCarthy of 2012’s The Pact and produced a sequel, succinctly titled The Pact II. As McCarthy moved on and proved again in his latest, the cleverly dread-filled At the Devil’s Door, Hallam and Horvath prove themselves to still be confident men of their craft. The handing of the baton is seamless, both pictures of a piece in terms of mythos and a creepily low-key dread, but what no one has really figured out is blending ghosts and a serial killer. Even when dealing with the supernatural, there should be established rules, something that should tell us where we, as well as the characters, stand in the film’s sense of reality, and something the original and this new follow-up muddle up. Rather than advance the saga of “The Judas Killer” in any surprising or satisfying way, this one just sort of treads water until it’s over.
At the scene of a murder with the earmarks of the allegedly dead “Judas Killer” (Mark Steger), June Abbott (Camilla Luddington) sets up shop at an apartment to clean the bloody brains off the walls. When she’s not working on her sketches for a book that emulates her latest nightmares, she has her own crime scene cleanup business, while live-in boyfriend Daniel (Scott Michael Foster) works as a police officer. It’s not until FBI profiler Agent Ballard (Patrick Fischler) knocks on their door, discovering a truth about June and her recovering-addict mother (Amy Pietz) that forces our heroine to contact and hook up with Annie Barlow (Caity Lotz of the original film) and make sense of what’s going on in her own house. Is Judas really dead?
The Pact II certainly deals out some scares by delivering them on beats we might not expect. There is an unnerving set-piece involving June in her bedroom and a slender shadow on a wall that won’t quite go away, and a seat-pouncing jolt in the middle of June and Daniel making love. Hallam and Horvath also don’t miss out on any opportunity for a jump scare involving a medicine cabinet mirror; some of them work, and others are just irritating. Script-wise, there are the requisitely cornball lines, “I know there is something in this house” and “You have no idea what you’re dealing with,” but the actors sell them well enough. Caity Lotz is still emotionally rigid as Annie in the Heather Langenkamp-in-A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors role, if you will. Everyone likes a strong “Final Girl,” but this time, she mostly points June in the right direction. Camilla Luddington (TV’s Grey Anatomy), our new lead, is appealing and more charismatic as June, and the English actress capably conveys the torn emotions of being betrayed in her own life by loved ones, as well as the emotional armor she must keep in her strangely gory line of work. As Agent Ballard, who could be a red herring and the perfect wild-card stand-in for Jeffrey Combs, Patrick Fischler is quirky back-up. The facially memorable Haley Hudson, as blind medium Stevie, is underutilized here, and Suziey Block (the directors’ star of Entrance) has a small running appearance as a victim in June’s nightmarish dreams.
Like a puzzle with a few missing pieces, The Pact II begins in a way the viewer is never sure where it’s headed, which is always a plus with a representative of the horror genre. Then once our characters start sniffing around, the mystery loses its suspense and gets less interesting, only for it to fall to pieces with a tacked-on twist and the talking-killer cliché. The final shot points to another sequel, which these films hardly need; someone just needs to figure out where to take this murky mythology and be done with it. Veteran horror watchers won’t have to sleep with the light on, or even use a nightlight, but The Pact II might rouse up some goosebumps for very casual fans of the genre.
The Pact II is already available on video-on-demand platforms and will open in select theaters October 10th.