2012’s The Pact concluded with a claustrophobic close-up of an eyeball looking around and then directly into the camera, an arresting image ripped from one of Dario Argento’s nightmares. That eye belonged to the Judas Killer, a serial decapitator who might be corporeal, might be a malevolent spirit, and might be a figment of some neurochemistry gone sour. The original film never bothered to elaborate on the true nature of its villain, which nicely suited its atmosphere of lingering dread. Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath’s moldy sequel shifts that tone to one less conducive to free-floating fear, splitting the difference between ambient horror and vaguely supernatural crime procedural, where its predecessor aligned itself squarely with the former. The resultant plot beats land in overly familiar territory, not quite salvaged by the film’s visual competence. The Pact 2 quacks like a duck and assembles eerie tableaux in a duck-like fashion, but its deeper foundational problems betray it as something else entirely.
Hallam and Horvath open on newly introduced “Final Girl” June (Camilla Luddington), arriving clad in hazmat garb to scrub the grisly aftermath of an explosive suicide from the wall of a derelict motel. Above, the ceiling reads “HE SHOWED ME THE WAY” in blood. This scene has the good fortune of providing the film with its most memorable line, when the room’s proprietor quietly tells June that he’ll take that chunk of human brain if she’s just gonna throw it away, as one might ask for a bite of uneaten hoagie. Ripe as June’s unlikely profession may be for disturbing mood-setting, this constitutes the full extent of the film’s engagement with it. Instead, June spends most of the runtime quivering in fear of the mostly unseen “HE” to which the sanguinary graffiti refers, joined eventually by the original film’s survivor, Annie (Caity Lotz). Turns out June’s biological mother (not to be confused with her recovering-addict adopted mother, a promising plotline that the film drops with speed normally reserved for hot potatoes) was the Judas Killer’s first victim, and the authorities fear June may be next.
But next for whom? In keeping with the original’s tradition, Pact 2 clouds the nature of its crimes’ perpetrator, but errs in fixating on the answer when the question can provide far more chilling gratification. Whether the Judas Killer has returned and who his accomplices might be aren’t necessarily the point, and yet the entire enterprise orients itself around that investigation. Hallam and Horvath frame Pact 2 as a whodunit by loudly and proudly revealing the culprit in its final act, blind to how little the audience cares about who actually did dun it. The film bungles a denouement that never needed to be there. It’s difficult to buy in to the developmentally thin, forgettable Judas Killer as a foe meriting multiple installments—Jason Voorhees he ain’t. Regardless, the creators expect audiences to invest emotionally in his identity and methods, some of which, such as a pair of tortured mirror-reflection jump scares, feel awfully long in the tooth. Has he possessed Daniel (Scott Michael Foster), June’s doting cop boyfriend? Or perhaps an FBI agent played by Patrick Fischler, who projects a strange energy, with his curt words juxtaposing his voice’s neighborly soft edges? Either way, there’s no need to foreground the question with such totality.
It’s a shame that the structure distracts viewers by inviting amateur sleuthing, because some passable horror unfolds in the meanwhile. The film specializes in creating haunting, uncanny images: Pollockian blood-spatters, a stoic man with a bullet hole on his forehead like a bindi, a ring spinning in defiance of the laws of physics. Surprisingly proficient camerawork adds a welcome air of professionalism to the proceedings as well. Hallam and Horvath make a handful of lamentable missteps, though: flashbacks to events the audience witnessed not 15 minutes prior add nothing, and dum-dum one-liners have a nasty habit of instantly deflating otherwise tense moments. (Looking at you, “Goddammit, I hate this shit.”) But with the exception of a couple of tortured gotcha-spooks, Pact 2’s chills feel innovative and novel. A shadow-puppet show gradually moves from weird to horrifying, and then pulls a clever trick by turning a figure with a bedsheet on top of it into its terrifying punchline (a move possibly nicked from 2013’s The Conjuring).
There’s a worthy sequel to a better-than-average horror film in here somewhere, but it’s buried underneath a wild goose chase that ultimately goes nowhere. Hallam and Horvath could use the same advice as the innumerable slasher victims who foolishly stop for a quick roll in the hay while friends die all around them: Get your damn priorities in order.