When we bring the entire team to Sundance or Toronto or any other festival, we try to each pick one part of the festival to cover.  That doesn't mean we're restricted to only one section, but that's our general focus.  For me, any time a festival has a Midnight Movies section, I'll be the one covering that.  Sundance is no exception, and tonight, I was at one of the two midnight screenings.  They showed "Tim & Eric's Billion $ Movie" at the Library, and I'll catch up with that in a few days.  They also screened "The Pact" at the Egyptian, and that's where I was.

I may have chosen poorly.

Last year, Nicholas McCarthy was here with a short film, also called "The Pact," and it appears someone who saw the film decided to give McCarthy the chance to expand it to feature-length.  I just saw the short film for the first time on Thursday, and I liked the short.  I thought it was stylish and effective, and it demonstrated a clear ability on the part of McCarthy to craft chilling suspense and strong visuals.  The short starred Jewel Staite and Sam Ball as a brother and sister who are called back to the house they grew up in to deal with the death of their mother.  In the short, it's obvious that these two didn't get along with Mom while she was alive, and it seems that although she's dead, she lingers on in spirit form.

The short impressed me because of the control it displayed.  McCarthy basically used the short to showcase the way he builds scares.  Unfortunately, he's hampered in many ways in the feature, and the material gets blown out in a way it can't support.  It's a thin story, built on a heady combination of improbable behavior and genre cliche, and it almost feels like it's a horror movie for people who rarely, if ever, actually watch horror movies.

It's a haunted house story, and a modestly-scaled one, at that.  I'm down for a good haunted house movie.  I really liked "Insidious," to name one recent example.  The problems with "The Pact" have nothing to do with the genre itself.  The feature turns the son and daughter of the short film into two daughters, condenses the short film into the first ten minutes, and then spends another 90 minutes or so just running in circles.

Here's what bothers me.  In the feature, Caity Lotz stars as Annie, the girl who has spent most of her adult life running from any sort of real emotional connection.  One of the reasons she's angry is because her sister (played by Agnes Bruckner) has a history of addiction, and now that they're having to deal with their mother's estate, the last thing Annie needs to deal with is a relapse.  When her sister goes missing inside Mom's house, Annie finds herself drawn into this mystery, determined to figure out what's wrong with the house.  All of that sounds fine, but instead of letting the character ideas that he sets up in the dynamic between the sisters or in the hints we get about their mother's behavior, he almost immediately abandons character in favor of threadbare plot mechanics.  Nothing about the girls drives anything than happens in the movie, and the "secrets" that the film is hiding don't really have anything to do with them, either.  There's quite a bit of shoe leather spent on establishing a key plot point about eye color, and the way it's finally paid off makes absolutely no sense.  When I saw that short, there was so much promise, and somehow, the feature squandered every single bit of it.

The structure is a familiar one, and McCarthy doesn't seem to realize just how familiar.  Instead, he treats every beat of this film as precious, and his tendency to lean on the jump scare becomes grating after a while.  The biggest problem is that he just doesn't seem to have any knack with actors.  He seems far more at home just dealing with the mood or the scares than he is directing these actors to play the reality of this situation.  There are some flat-out bad ideas in the movie, like a subplot about a blind medium that Annie went to school with is ridiculous, both in conception and execution, and Casper Van Dien shows up in a small supporting role as The Worst Cop Of All Time.  By the time the film finally coughs up its "big secret," I could not have cared less.  I was just hoping to be done with the film already.  It wears out its welcome, plodding along through a non-mysterious mystery, and I even think the short feels more accomplished technically than the feature.  In general, this is not going to serve as a calling card for McCarthy, and I'd have a hard time imagining this one getting any sort of wide release.

Still, that's just one midnight movie.  We've got plenty more coming this week, and I'm excited to see them.  "Black Rock," a horror film starring Kate Bosworth and Katie Aselton, who also co-wrote and directed the film, is up tonight, and I've got my fingers crossed.