Written by: Brian King
Directed by: Vicenzo Natali
Starring: Abigail Breslin, Stephen McHattie, and Peter Outerbridge
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Trapped by an evil from her past.
Yet another haunted house movie isnít likely to raise much of a stir, but, with Vicenzo Nitali at the helm, you can bet your ass that Haunter isnít a typical bump-in-the-night sort of outing. While not as outright loony or bizarre as his previous efforts (I think Iím still coming down from the ďWTF?Ē high that was Splice), Nitaliís latest is nonetheless a fairly inventive take on this old standard. By cobbling together some familiar tropes (serial killers, possession, ghosts) with some unexpected ones (time travel!), Nitali forges a film that feels just fresh enough to separate itself from its contemporaries.
80s teen Lisa Johnson (Abigail Breslin) seems to have the same problems as any other girl on the eve of her 16th birthday: sheís stuck with a sort of lame family, forced to do chores, and canít leave the house. Unlike most girls, sheís stuck with this for all eternity, doomed to an eternal loop, as we watch her relive the same day over and over again in a sinister recreation of Groundhog Day, where her pleas to her parents fall on deaf ears. Eventually, she makes a horrifying discovery: she and her family are all actually dead and have been for some time.
Usually, thatís the big ďgotchaĒ reveal in one of these ďreverse ghost stories,Ē but Haunter lets us in on that secret rather early, as itís one of several puzzle pieces in this intriguing little mystery that sprawls rather messily before finally coalescing. The script scatters various familiar concepts about: possessed, psychopathic fathers that could have taken up residence in Amityville, a maniac's decades-long kidnapping and killing spree, a disturbing imaginary friend, a ouija board, and, yeah, time travel. With so much splatting against the wall, it takes a bit for Haunter to find its groove and direction; once it does, it becomes an intense race against time as Lisa tries to save another family from suffering the same fate as her own.
The time travel wrinkle is especially loopy, but its impact is perhaps a bit dulled by the shadow of Insidious: Chapter Two pulling the same thing with a higher profile (Haunter was actually released first). However, itís a convenient comparison in more ways than one because Haunter feels like an oddball cousin to Wanís film. Imagine spending 90 minutes poking around in The Further, and youíll have a good idea of the aesthetic Nitali souses the film in. From the opening frames, itís an ultra-gloomy, ethereal landscape eternally shrouded in a mysterious, impenetrable fog that immediately hints that Lisa is stuck in some purgatorial dimension. Once she begins to bounce from one era to the other, the cinematography becomes a distinguishing shorthand, with the climax appropriately taking on the look of vintage, lower-grade footage.
You could also imagine finding the filmís villain, Stephen McHattieís Pale Man, skulking about in The Further. In fact, the filmís central conceit creeps up much in the same way Insidious II did. Remember how that film suddenly became a supernatural throwback to slashers, complete with a traumatized child who wound up butchering the locals? Haunter enters similar territory with The Pale Man, a low-rent Freddy Krueger wannabe who gets a kick out of abducting and killing girls. And, like Freddy, he only became more of an asshole when he died, as heís spent his afterlife collecting the souls of any family unfortunate enough to move into his home. McHattie makes for a good creep. His skeletal profile immediately frames him as a harbinger of death, but he also relishes in a performance that allows him to play a sick, leering maniac.
Breslin is an excellent foil; I donít know if itís her intention to stick with horror or if sheís just having a fling, but we should enjoy her while sheís here. Carrying the film with ease, she sheds the disaffected teenaged girl routine to become a scrappy final girl who provides the film with more than adequate stakes. Again, itís reminiscent of Wanís ghost stories in that the charactersí survival becomes paramount. You want to see this girl reach the finish line, so the film provides another reminder that a haunted house movie is only as effective as those living in itóor, in this case, lingering in it.
True to its title, the film is rather haunting in a classical way; the Pale Manís crimes are grisly but mostly hinted at, so Haunter doesnít rely on explicit violence as much as an unrelenting, suffocating atmosphere. Itís a movie that just feels disturbing, perhaps because it strikes the same primal chord as A Nightmare on Elm Street: evil can lurk right in the heart of suburbia and simply make its victims disappear. Given the glut of similar movies at the multiplexes last year, itís easier to understand how Haunter got lost in the shuffle (the confounded reception to Splice likely did it no favors), but itís finally arrived on home video courtesy of IFC Midnight, who have complimented a solid Blu-ray presentation with a host of extras, including some behind-the-scenes material, storyboards, a trailer, and two separate commentaries with Natali and writer Brian King. Haunter is arguably Nataliís most restrained and straightforward film, but itís a striking bit of genre alchemy all the same. Buy it!
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