02/01/2012 07:11 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2012

Sundance 2012: The Pact

I've been here before. Not just Sundance, but a midnight screening of a horror movie at the Egyptian. That was almost thirteen years ago to the day, for The Blair Witch Project. At that time, I was here as an actress. Now I'm here as a reporter. It's a lot more fun this way. The Pact, a haunted house midnight movie screening at the Egyptian, is the first film I'm writing about, because I do love to live a good narrative.

The Pact is tight the way a really good band is. There's nothing wasted, nothing unnecessary and all of the elements in play complement each other. And there are a lot of elements in play. Think of every trope in the scary movie lexicon. And now remember to also throw in a ouija board. You forgot about that one? Director/screenwriter Nicholas McCarthy didn't. He didn't forget anything.

The Pact includes: religious iconography, a stultified house, a sexy tough girl protagonist (played with equal parts fragility and ferocity by Caity Lotz), a newly dead and much-despised mother, a serial killer on the loose, a fragile girl-woman with raccoon eyes who sees dead people, wiry bald men slithering through small spaces, a hot cop who would like to save the day, but instead provides the movie's nod to gore. Check, check, and check. You might think this would make for a succotash of stale. You would be wrong. The Pact takes everything you thought you knew about haunted house movies and upcycles them with a tense, razor-sharp freshness that never stops bringing the screams. And scream the audience did, followed by the delighted laughter that is a horror movie's high five.

What makes The Pact a wonderful piece of filmmaking for any genre is how McCarthy manages tone. The stakes are sky high from the start: A dead mother! A drug addiction! A missing sister! A newly-minted doe-eyed orphan! And from here they continually build, the tension amplified by staying on just the right side of over-the-top. The Pact almost crosses that line when the clairvoyant girl comes in--almost like the film is daring to the audience to stop suspending disbelief. I wanted to put my cynical hat on, but was instead rewarded with the movie's best boo. Good old fashioned movie manipulation. Yay! The tonal tightrope walk keeps you on the hook even through the most slyly brilliant product placement ever, which happens amidst the film's climax and involves a refreshing beverage.

Bottom line:

The Pact's genre vocabulary is vast and fluid, held taut by Nicholas McCarthy's masterful sense of tone.

But, really, who cares? The scares are awesome.