Next year is the centennial anniversary of the haunted house movie genre, as Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ghost Breaker, released in 1914, is widely considered the first haunted house flick. There have been countless additions to the genre over this last century for a variety of reasons, perhaps most simply due to the commonality we all share in having heard creaks in the night and maybe sometimes having at least that tiny moment of doubt and fear, wondering if the dark around the hallway contains something other than darkness. The home is supposed to be our truest Safe Place, and the notion that this safety can not only be disturbed and ripped apart, but that the cause might be something supernatural in our space runs fundamentally against that feeling of safety. That is exactly what good psychological horror is all about, rending a viewer’s feeling of comfort and safety.
Vincenzo Natali tries to do two things within this well-trodden genre with Haunter. In one way, he’s trying to give us a straight-forward haunted house movie, hitting many of the beats that we’ve come to know and expect. But he’s also trying to give us a new spin on the genre, essentially offering the horror version of Groundhog’s Day. As in that great comedy, Haunter has Lisa (Abigail Breslin) repeatedly waking up on the morning before her sixteenth birthday, which also happens to be the day when Lisa and her entirely family die. Lisa, a disaffected teenager who wears an ankh earring and Siouxsie and the Banshees t-shirt, is the only one who knows that they have all died and that they are stuck in this one-day-forever loop. It is unclear whether this is the afterlife or something else, but whatever the situation, Lisa is bored and frustrated with the tedium of it and, unlike Bill Murray’s Phil, she doesn’t even have a quite town to muck about in each day, as she’s stuck in the house for reasons that later become clear. And on top of it all, in addition to the dead family stuck in a time loop, the house is also haunted.
While ostensibly a haunted house film, the movie actually plays more like low-thrill mystery than horror. There are a few “scares” (which are mostly and unfortunately of the loud noise jump-scare variety), but the film is really about following Lisa’s attempt to unravel the mysteries of how her family died, why they’re stuck in this situation, and what’s going on in the house. Aside from the use of those jump-scares, Natali does a credible job early of creating a claustrophobic atmosphere to the film, and mixes in clever ideas and almost-new takes on the haunted house genre. Unfortunately, by the third act, it becomes clear where things are going and, like Natali’s Cube and Splice before it, Haunter fails to stick the landing. Curiosity gives way to boredom.
None of this can be blamed on Breslin, who is required to do most of the movie’s heavy lifting. As the young actress who fell on most of our radar screens with Little Miss Sunshine sprints into adulthood, she continues to show a subtle depth and through most of the film she hits every note perfectly, only faltering when the movie begins to fall apart. The rest of the cast ranges from good-enough to good, although “that guy” Stephen McHattie dances all over the line that runs between entertaining scenery chewing and ridiculous. Ultimately, Haunter remains better than most haunted house films, but is not notable for much other than being yet another Natali film that begins with some great ideas but fails to take them to a satisfying place.
Haunter world-premiered at South By Southwest 2013.