Horror Double Feature: The Damned and The Pact

Well, as the God of Hellfire and I batten down the hatches in central Florida in preparation for a possible smackdown by Hurricane Irma, I thought I’d take the opportunity before the power goes out to run through a couple of horror movies on Netflix for yet another installment of my Double Feature series. So off we go.

First up, the 2013 Columbian/American co-production The Damned (aka Gallows Hill), directed by Victor García. I just kind of picked this one on a whim because I was tired of scrolling through the offerings, and though sometimes when that happens, I stumble across a hidden gem, unfortunately this was not one of those times. It’s not a terrible movie by any means, but it’s not particularly notable either.

Briefly, the story follows American dad David (Peter Facinelli) and his British fiancée Lauren (Sophia Myles) as they go to Columbia to bring David’s daughter Jill (Nathalia Ramos) back to the U.S. so she can attend their upcoming nuptials. Jill rebelled against her dad after the death of her mother/David’s first wife Marcela (Tatiana Renteria), she hates David’s girlfriend for no real reason, and she has been living in Columbia with her aunt, TV journalist Gina (Carolina Guerra), and her boyfriend/Gina’s cameraman Ramón (Sebastiàn Martinez) ever since.

Jill is resisting being taken home to the wedding, and gets all passive aggressive about it, saying she can’t go back yet because her passport is back in her apartment in Medellín. So the five of them pile into an SUV in a torrential downpour and head out there. Along the way, they are stopped by Captain Morales (Juan Pablo Gamboa), a cop who warns them that the road ahead is flooded out, but of course Gina knows everything and convinces them to press on because she’s really familiar with these roads (not much use in being familiar with roads that have been washed away, but whatever). Predictably, moments later, the car gets stuck in the mud and then tumbled off the road by a flash flood. Most of the gang escape with minor injuries, but Lauren has two broken ribs, so they are forced to wade out into the jungle to look for help.

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They soon come across an inn, and a standard-issue creepy old guy named Felipe (Gustavo Angarita) tells them the inn is closed and they need to hit the (nonexistent) pavement. But they eventually talk their way into the inn (heh) and Felipe grudgingly gives them some water and then takes David outside to cut some wood for the fireplace, but not before warning all the remaining interlopers to not leave the front room and go wandering about the house.

After less than five minutes, our heroes discover that all the phone lines have been cut and that no one has signed the guest register since 1978. Shortly after this revelation, Jill and Ramòn decide to do precisely what the old man told them not to, which is to go wandering about the place looking for a bathroom. In the grungy, roach-infested shitter, Jill hears a little girl’s voice coming through the pipes and calling for help. After a bit of investigating, they find out that the little girl is locked in a big wooden box down in the cellar, and decide that they need to rescue her.

In short order, Felipe is knocked out and tied up, and his filthy, obviously creepy daughter Ana Maria (Julieta Salazar) is released. Almost from the moment the kid starts interacting with her supposed liberators, you know something sketchy is up, but our gang refuse to see it until they stumble across the skeleton of Felipe’s wife in the wooden prison box (which is also completely covered in what appear to be written invocations) and a decades-old photograph of Felipe and his family that nonetheless shows Ana Maria the same age as she is now.

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So, surprise, Ana Maria is possessed by a demon, or more specifically by a bruja who was hanged as a witch on that patch of land years ago (hence the film’s alternate title of Gallows Hill) and has vowed to kill all the descendants of the people who executed her. Once Ana Maria is released from the box, the bruja begins to search for a better host among the assembled chuckleheads, but the true nature of the bruja’s endgame doesn’t really become clear until the cop from earlier, Morales, appears and tells the gang that if you kill the person the bruja is possessing, then the bruja will simply inhabit your body instead; thus there is really no way to destroy her.

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This was actually the best aspect of the film, I thought, the idea that you were in a sort of Catch-22 in regards to the bruja: If you killed the person the witch was using, she would just move on to you, and then you would go on to kill everyone else. There was really no way to beat her, which gave the movie a nicely bleak undertone. And I also appreciated the pessimism of the ending, where (spoiler alert), everyone gets killed except for David and his daughter Jill. David is trying not to kill Lauren, who is now housing the bruja, but then Jill kills Lauren to save her dad, thus passing the bruja on to Jill, who pleads with her father to confine her before the bruja takes over and kills him. David ends up being forced to lock Jill into the box that Ana Maria was released from, with just a weary voiceover implying that he’s going to take the boxed-up Jill back home to try to figure out a way of expelling the witch.

As I said, all in all, not a great movie; not awful, but mostly meh. The acting was all right, though most of the dialogue was kind of lame and obvious, and though I did like the conceit of the bruja being passed from person to person, on the whole I found I didn’t care enough about the characters for the hopelessness of their situation to have any emotional impact. And honestly, right from the outset, I found most of the characters fairly unlikable. Ramón and Lauren were all right, but the others ranged from bland and useless to actively obnoxious, especially Jill and Gina. They made stupid decisions at pretty much every turn, willfully disobeyed reasonable requests just because they thought they knew better, and generally ended up bringing all this shit down upon themselves. On the plus side, the movie looked pretty nice and had some decent gore, but that was about all it had going for it; it didn’t even have much in the way of scary scenes or memorably creepy visuals.

The second film on the Double Feature tip was actually much, much better, a far more restrained supernatural/murder mystery called The Pact. Released in 2012 and written and directed by Nicholas McCarthy, this movie used atmosphere and subtlety to great effect, mostly keeping the jump scares to a minimum and relying on eerie set-pieces and the quiet building of suspense.

The movie opens with a woman named Nicole Barlow (Agnes Bruckner) arriving at her old family home to put affairs in order after her mother’s death. As Nicole has a strained phone conversation with her sister Annie (Caity Lotz), much back story is revealed with very little in the way of exposition. Annie is refusing to come back for their mother’s funeral because their mother was abusive. Nicole was a former drug addict who was known for shirking her responsibilities, but is trying to make amends with her family and herself by dealing with her mother’s estate and trying to do right by her own young daughter Eva (Dakota Bright). The family dynamic is set up efficiently, and almost at once, we move on to the scary paranormal stuff.

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While Nicole is in the house alone, she starts to hear odd noises and feel some kind of presence. Nervous, she gets on her laptop to talk with her daughter Eva, who is staying with cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins). The lights keep flickering on and off, and Nicole keeps losing her wifi signal, barely being able to see or hear her daughter. Eva asks her mother who that is behind her, and then the signal cuts out entirely. A terrified Nicole whips around, but sees no one. However, a closet door is open that wasn’t open before. Nicole goes to investigate, and the screen fades to black.

The next scene shows Annie arriving at their mother’s house on her motorcycle. Over the next few minutes, it’s established that Nicole hasn’t been heard from for three days, and that even though Annie initially didn’t want anything to do with her mother’s death, she decided to return to the homestead to find out what happened to Nicole. At first, she doesn’t suspect anything particularly nefarious; she simply assumes that Nicole reverted to her old junkie days, found herself unable to deal with the stress of the funeral, and took off to hang in some drug den someplace.

But then, she makes another attempt to call Nicole, and hears Nicole’s phone ringing from inside the hall closet. Annie finds Nicole’s phone lying on the floor of the closet, but doesn’t find Nicole. Troubled, she heads down to the church for her mother’s funeral, and speaks with Liz and Eva, convincing them to come back to the house with her because she thinks something weird might be going on.

That night, all hell breaks loose as Annie has horrible nightmares about a crying shirtless man in the house, then awakens to see an actual dark figure in the hallway. She grabs a knife and starts giving chase, but is thwarted by an unseen force that starts throwing her against the walls, and as she runs through the place, she discovers that Liz has also disappeared. Terrified, she scoops up the screaming Eva and flees to the police station.

The cops obviously don’t believe her story, though an officer named Bill Creek (Casper Van Dien) seems at least partially sympathetic, since he knew Nicole back in the day. He still thinks that Annie might have something to do with the disappearances, though, and warns her not to leave town.

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Annie refuses to return to her mother’s house, understandably, but while she’s holing up in a seedy motel, she has more of the horrible dreams, and then notices that her phone keeps pinging with an unknown address. Clicking on the map brings up a photo of a park-like area with a bench which also happens to feature a blurry, ghostly female figure in a flowered dress, who seems to be pointing to something.

Eventually, after many clues, she and Bill Creek discover a room hidden behind a wall in her family home. It contains nothing but a mattress spring and a bunch of tiny holes in the walls that give a view of every other room in the house. Annie insists that the house is haunted by a ghost who isn’t her mother and is trying to urgently tell her something. After Bill Creek refuses to buy into this idea, Annie goes to an old druggie friend and psychic named Stevie (the intensely spooky Haley Hudson), who is able to tell Annie that there is someone in the closet, and that the ghost in the house wants to tell her something that her mother didn’t want anyone to know about. She also tells Annie that she can see all the abuse that Annie and Nicole suffered at the hands of their mother in the closet in question. Stevie also goes into a kind of fit in the hidden room, where she repeatedly screams the name “Judas,” and everyone sees the eerie specter of the woman in the flowered dress floating up near the ceiling.

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Annie is able to discover that there was an uncaught serial killer in the area years earlier called the Judas Killer, and by putting two and two together, she determines not only that the ghost haunting the family home is one of the serial killer’s victims, Jennifer Glick, but also that the serial killer was named Charles Barlow and was her mother’s brother, a relative she previously did not know existed.

While Annie is finding all this stuff out at the Hall of Records, Bill Creek has been going through some photos he took at the house and is beginning to get on board with the whole ghost scenario. He goes back to the house to check on his hunch, but abruptly gets stabbed in the neck and killed by an unseen individual.

Annie returns to the house later and sets up an ersatz Ouija board in the hidden room where she communicates with Jennifer Glick, who confirms Annie’s suspicions about the Judas Killer. But just as Jennifer spells out the word “below,” a scrawny bald dude emerges from a trap door in the floor beneath the mattress spring. Annie hides and watches the creepy fellow, quickly coming to the conclusion that this is Charles Barlow (Mark Steger), her uncle the serial killer, that he is still alive, and that he has been living behind the walls of the house the entire time, protected by Annie‘s mother.

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After Judas goes out to the kitchen for food, Annie peers down into his basement hovel and sees the bodies of Bill Creek and her sister Nicole (I don’t think Liz is shown, but she’s presumably down there too). She wisely swipes Bill’s gun and there is a tense sequence where she and Judas struggle, Annie is knocked out and tied up in the closet, but manages to free herself, stab Judas with a coat hanger, then eventually shoot him right in the forehead.

In the coda, it is shown that Annie sold the house and adopted Nicole’s daughter Eva, and the implication is that she has now completely turned her life around and left her unhappy past behind her. But at the very end, there is a brief shot through one of the holes in the wall of the secret room, which shows one blinking blue eye. I don’t know if that is meant to say that Judas somehow survived, or if it was just a dream sequence to freak us out, but it was pretty creepy, regardless.

Now, there is another implication here that isn’t really made super obvious, but there were a couple shots of the film that showed that Annie, like David Bowie, had one green eye and one blue eye. After Judas is killed, there is a close-up of his face that shows him to have the same thing. So I’m pretty sure they were suggesting that Judas was actually Annie and Nicole’s father, and that he and their mother had an incestuous relationship. Like I said, they didn’t spell this out, but Annie did make an offhand comment early in the film that she didn’t know who their father was, so I’m guessing that was what that was all about. And to be honest, one of the things I liked most about this film was how it didn’t feel the need to over-explain itself; it just laid out the clues and tendrils and let the audience figure them out.

I also loved the slow build of the tension, the skin-crawling long shots of the hallways and doorways of the house, and the really unsettling glimpses of the ghosts (particularly when Annie briefly sees the ghost of Jennifer Glick with her top half and her bottom half weirdly out of alignment). I also enjoyed that the house was not only haunted by a ghost, but also housed a real person who had been hiding out there all along. The implications of all this family drama left a lot to the imagination, which made it much creepier, in my opinion. There were no flashbacks to Annie and Nicole’s abusive childhood, or to Judas’s former crimes. Everything was kept mostly subtle and limited to one or two mentions, so that the viewer could fill in her own blanks.

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Many times while watching this movie, matter of fact, I was pleasantly reminded of I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, one of my favorite horror films of the past several years. The Pact had that same looming atmosphere of dread, that same framing of mundane household details as sinister, that same ambiguity about where the haunting ended and the terror of the living killer began. It had some fantastically disturbing visuals without going over the top, and even though the story itself wasn’t wildly original, it really sucked you into its mystery and moody ambiance from the moment it began. It’s an impressive debut from director Nicholas McCarthy, and I’ll definitely be seeking out his future work.

Well, from the storm-lashed streets of central Florida, this is the Goddess signing out and urging you to keep it creepy, my friends. And stay safe, all you folks in the path of wrathful nature.

 

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