Interview with Nicholas McCarthy – Director of THE PACT
THE PACT is one of those low budget horror success stories that comes along every so often and manages to strike a chord and cross over into the mainstream. Shot on an extremely low budget, director Nicholas MCarthy’s film was given a wide release in the UK when it opened at the beginning of last month.
Nicholas very kindly agreed for us to interview him and, as you’re about to see, Euro Cult films (and their makers) occupy a very special place in his heart…
I would automatically assume that you’re something of a film buff. Please can you elaborate on the films that formed a significant part of your education as a filmmaker?
I’ve always liked all kinds of movies. When I was a little kid ANYTHING was worth seeing, even movies that were way over my head. But horror got its grips in me early. I grew up in New Hampshire and we had a black and white TV set that got about 6 channels and used a rotating antennae on top of the house. Occasionally I could catch Godzilla movies playing and the concept of monster movies began to obsess me. I used to pour through the TV listings to find evidence of anything horror-related. There was this mysterious channel that we didn’t receive, out of Boston–Channel 56–they were always airing films on Saturday afternoons with titles like IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE or DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. What were these things? I could only imagine. Then one day all of a sudden we were able to get Channel 56 over our set — they must’ve boosted their signal. I waited all week to see the two movies they were showing, which I soon learned was their programming block called “Creature Double Feature.” That weekend they showed a Toho monster movie I now can’t remember followed by the completely bizarre FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER. Viewing that second movie was a life-changing experience. It was “bad,” but at age 8 I had no measurement of bad. It was shot in Puerto Rico and there was no Frankenstein monster. Most of it was post-dubbed. I could hardly make sense of it. It had a scene where a robot, who was running amuck, threw an axe in someone’s face. Those 90 minutes changed my life forever.
As I got older I started to watch all kinds of films in the genre and outside of it. But the dark and strange always stuck with me, and that’s always the stuff I liked best.
I think you’ve just described how many of us became so enamoured with film, Nick! We had only four channels when most of us were growing up here in the UK, so we had far less horror on our screens, with the notable exception of the double bills that were screened over weekends and Alex Cox’s excellent Moviedrome series. The advent of rental VHS opened things up a lot wider and horror became far more accessible (until the introduction of Britain’s draconian Video Recordings Act!). Do you have any fond memories or standout experiences from the time when you were introduced to video?
Video was so important to me growing up. I saved up my own money to buy a VCR. It was a used, giant top-loading JVC model. Like so many other horror fans, an entire world of the genre was opened up to me with that machine It was all the more exciting back then because there was so much less context for what was out there — the video shelves were like a wild west, “respectable” studio product right alongside the sleaziest no-budget horror movies imaginable. I started to program all night marathons for my friends and we would watch both the stuff I wanted them to see, along with cult and horror movies I had read about and thought might be great – sometimes they were, sometimes they weren’t. I also began taping things off late night TV back then, which is how I caught favorites like SHOCK WAVES or ZONTAR: THE THING FROM VENUS. That old VCR was how I saw so many of the great and awful films that I still love.
I’ll also say this about watching movies on home video — it’s STILL something I’m amazed and grateful for, because I remember when I was first introduced to this concept — that just because you’re thinking of a movie could now mean you could choose to watch it, then and there. That is an amazing luxury. The other luxury is the huge mine of cinema history that opened up with the ability to cheaply acquire and watch older movies. In the Euro Cult world I’m always impressed how we can pour over these films that never really were meant to stand some kind of test of time – but that’s one of the qualities that make them so special. These films were made with an urgency because there was a market that was just hungry for more and more movies, coming at a time of real inventiveness in cinema. When I made my own movie, that urgency was something I kept in mind–THE PACT was not made after 10 years of developing it–it was written in six weeks and shot in 18 days! But with the budget so low the financier was basically like “just go do it” and I had no time to think too much about anything beyond trying to make this weird little movie I had imagined in my head just weeks before. Some might criticize that approach, but I wouldn’t have traded that freshness for anything. The whole thing was just full throttle, the same way that guys like Enzo Castellari operated, back in the day.
Did reading about the way in which Italian filmmakers made their films or even watching the special features on the DVDs have any impact on how you’ve honed your skills as a filmmaker? You mention Castellari, but did he or any of the other prolific filmmakers of the period make an impression on the way you made your film on such a tight schedule?
One of the things that I’ve come to really admire about many of the directors from back then was how prolific they were. I mean, a guy like Castellari had a film coming out every 6 months in the 70s! And in all different genres — westerns, crime films, comedies… As I said earlier, I think there’s strength in making things quickly, to attack a script and move on. It can produce all kinds of films — some terrible, but also some that are masterpieces. And that’s not limited to exploitation — many of the titans of the “art film” did the same thing — Bunuel, Bergman, Fassbinder… they just made film after film after film. That’s something I aspire to do.
The circumstances of the Italian film industry in the 70s are exceptional, there’s no going back to that time economically or culturally. But the more of the films from the period that I watch the more in tune I feel to that urgency that went into making them, and it in turn, that inspires me to create something. Their energy is contagious.
Are you a big fan of Euro Cult cinema? If so, please can you touch upon the genres, films and filmmakers that have inspired you as an artist?
The first Euro Cult films I saw were, like a lot of other fans, viewed on cropped VHS tapes. Probably the first Euro genre title I ever saw was Fulci’s GATES OF HELL aka CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD. I was about 13 and probably read about it in Fangoria, which obsessed over how much blood was in a movie, therefore it paid special attention to this title. It was a little boring at that age, but strangely fascinating. It came from another world, outside of American cinema. It had a whole different cinematic language. And it was disgusting. I was interested.
It wasn’t until a few years later, at age 16, that I truly “discovered” Euro Cult, when I went to see a 35mm screening of SUSPIRIA. I knew next to nothing about this movie going in, maybe just that it was an Italian horror movie. I was nearly all alone in the theater, by myself, mid-week, during a hot summer. The sound was LOUD. When the film finished my mind was shattered. I had never seen anything so scary, so cinematic, so strange. I wanted more. Since then I’ve watched Italian, French, and Spanish genre movies non-stop. My next obsession after Argento, of course, was Mario Bava — his work blew me away, I loved exploring film after film of his, each one so different and amazing. As I got older I developed a soft spot for gialli and the whole spectrum of crime films. Probably my favorite giallo is STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH, but I’ve seen dozens and loved many of them, from the beautiful ones like LE ORME to the cruddy insanity of Umerto Lenzi’s EYEBALL.
Crime films it’s the same thing — I’ve been enthusiastic about the classier examples, like MACHINE GUN MCCAIN, but also loved the trashiest of the trash, like the movie I first saw on a double bill with MCCAIN — ASSAULT WITH A DEADLY WEAPON aka ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH. That movie is batshit crazy.
SUSPIRIA seems to be an entry level title for many EuroCult fans, it was one of the first Italian horror films I saw too. You mention ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH, again this was one of the first poliziotteschi films I caught and, like my friend who introduced me to them, I stumbled upon the genre because I found myself seeking out the work of the directors of Italian horror movies – was this the case with you? Looking at the work of directors such as Umberto Lenzi and Sergio Martino in particular as both dabbled in many different genres, do you have a preference to a particular type of film that they made?
Yeah, horror was my entry point and I think it’s true for a lot of fans. What I discovered was that really there are so many more interesting European thrillers and crime films than horror movies. It’s fun to trace the careers of a lot of these directors because you see their strengths and weaknesses, but I also have learned that the strength of the work often has a lot to do with the circumstances of both when the movies were made and how well they were produced. When Sergio Martino made STRANGE VICE… it was at the very beginning of the giallo flood and for me it feels like the quintessential movie that defined the cycle after Bava and Argento put the elements together. For that reason it seems like everything falls into place for Martino on that movie and I’ve watched it many times. In the same way, with Lenzi’s films, I first heard about him because of the notorious, sloppily made horror movies from the later part of his career, but when I saw his late 60s giallo ORGASMO with him working with a stronger budget and just at a different pop cultural moment I was like “wow!” That film is one of the all-time classic Euro Cult titles to me. Then I started seeing his crime movies in between and I was like “holy shit, this guy is crazy! Who knew he could do that too?”
Have you paid homage to any of your favourite films or directors in THE PACT?
Well there’s a lot of different genre films that influenced the movie, and there’s a lot of Euro Cult in there. There’s a shot at the beginning that is a direct reference to SUSPIRIA, where the camera rises up and peers down at the actress through a hanging lamp. In Argento’s film they’re on some crazy crane, while we just used the boom arm on the dolly, but it was a total homage. I showed my director of photography Bridger Nielson sequences from SUSPIRIA to give him an idea of how we wanted to establish camera movement. It was funny, the film is like a sacred text to me, and Bridger thought it was cool, but he kept pointing out how bumpy Argento’s dolly shots were!
The mystery plotting of the movie was inspired completely by the Italian giallo film. There’s a kind of fetishy attention to detail in those movies that I tried to get in THE PACT, with lots of close ups of clues. There’s also a murder sequence in the movie where all you see is a hand with a knife and the audience doesn’t see who’s holding the knife. The concept for the scene came from the classic giallo template, and for reference I actually showed our makeup FX guy and my DoP a murder in Argento’s OPERA. There are tons of dolly shots in the movie following people around. Part of it was inspired by the classic, poetic horror movies of Val Lewton, but the look and size of the shots came from the park sequence in FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET.
Finally, there’s a long daylight sequence in my movie that is entirely modeled on the look and feel of Antonioni’s BLOW-UP. I was watching that movie again a few years ago and realized how much Argento took from it for BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE – the movie that kicked off the wonderful wave of all those gialli. So it’s a kind of Euro Cult reference in a more oblique way.
BLOW-UP is a wonderful film and one that gets better with each subsequent viewing. Were you aware of the importance of creating a work that stands up to the scrutiny of repeated viewings and did you deliberately make choices that would allow for things to go unnoticed when the viewer watches THE PACT for the first time?
I was just concerned with trying to create the movie in my head, which on our budget meant trying to get as many different shots as we could every day. I really feel like you can’t think about the future when you create something like this, you never know how it will be received or who will like it. One of the things that’s been cool about getting the film out there is some of the people who I respect, horror fans with blogs, genre savvy writers like Kim Newman in particular, have given the movie props. But in no way did I ever try to calculate or predict that sort of response. I was just trying to make my first movie. I hope that some people will return to it. Lord knows there are a lot of films that I’ve watched again and again where the creators never imagined people would see it more than once, like so many of the Euro Cult titles we love.
Thank you, Nick, it’s been great chatting with you.