Haunter is nothing if not derivative, but frequently not of other horror movies. Which means it isn’t a hugely scary movie, so it’s unlikely to be clutched to the bosoms of aficionados of the genre. It’s also unlikely to be sought out by those who aren’t that partial to horror movies, as it sells itself as another teen horror flick. A medley of Groundhog Day, The Sixth Sense, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Ghost, Vincenzo Natali’s picture has enough inventiveness to escape becoming just another formulaic frightener.
The most refreshing part of Haunter is that it doesn’t make a meal of its twist premise. Of course, it’s only a twist if you don’t know about it in advance (Netflix apparently gives the game away in its movie description). We’ve seen more than enough pictures, post-Shyamalan, that have made themselves all about the reveal. This creates a top-heavy construction, guiding the audience by way of anticipation that is rarely satisfied. Here, we’re told in the first few minutes that Lisa (Abigail Breslin, all Goth eyeliner and Siouxsie and the Banshees t-shirts) is experiencing every day over and over again. It’s a waking nightmare where she must watch Murder, She Wrote again and again and again. Any questions that arise over why she hasn’t done more to test the limits of her situation are answered when it is made clear she has only been in this self-aware state for a week.
Her relationship with her blissfully unaware parents, Bruce (Peter Outerbridge) and Carol (Michelle Nolden) is a neat variation on the troubled petulant teen; they refuse to entertain her problems, yet she is not inventing or exaggerating them to attract attention. Perhaps she should have been clued up much sooner that the imaginary friend of her little brother Robbie (Peter DaCunha) isn’t a figment of the mind, so in this at least it yields to the horror’s reliance on idiot protagonists.
Lisa is trapped within her home, a sea of fog permeating outside, and only she is aware that disturbing events are taking place there (objects moving of their own accord, ghostly presences). Natali is having fun, overlaying Peter and the Wolf as a signature on the soundtrack, but he’s slightly less proficient when it comes to conjuring the 1985 setting. The artefacts are there (video tapes, pop group posters, Pacman) but the cinematography really needed to go the extra mile; digital makes it a little too immediate.
Lisa’s attempts to contact the unknown forces via Ouija board trigger the reveal that she’s dead. Soon after, her parents stop repeating the day by rote, most notably as dad takes up smoking at the dinner table (“That’s not part of the routine”) and then descends into the mode of raging psycho (Outerbridge’s performance is outstanding, note-perfectly essaying the change from caring father to demented loon). Then the mysterious Pale Man (the legendary Stephen McHattie, the guy you get if you can’t get Lance Henrikson) pays a call and warns her to stop rocking the boat, or house. Natali keeps the audience guessing during this passage, and it reminded me a little of Christopher Smith’s elusive Triangle.
True, the Pale Man is your bog-standard serial killer, complete with a ready line in archaic phrases (“You’re a busy Betty”) that wouldn’t sound out of place in Misery. But, to be fair, this is part of the picture’s time-jumping design, with a 1950s milieu lurking beneath the surface. His ghost was the former resident of the property (dying the year before the family moved in) and he is modus operandi is to lure more dwellers to their deaths.
Fairly familiar sounding, but McHattie’s drawn, menacing presence adds flavour to the scenario. More than that, the shuffling time periods furnish an effective extra layer to his sub-Krueger antics. This allows for intriguing variations on mysteries under the floorboards and nasties lurking in the cellar. Lisa is able to jump forward to 2013, into the body of the teenage girl intended as one the Pale Man’s latest victims, and so prevent history repeating. Her father is enacting the same Pale Man-guided routine that caused Bruce to kill his family (another striking reveal).
Natali was quiet for a few years prior to Haunter. His previous picture, Splice, was a divisive affair, an potent take on “scientist plays God” Frankenstein tales, but with an icky incestuous twist. Cypher, which shares Haunter screenwriter Brian King, fell into the previously mentioned category, a twist movie whose reveal didn’t quite support the groundwork laid. Natali’s first feature Cube illustrated his fondness for puzzle boxes, as a means of character self-realisation, which Haunter continues. For some reason he hasn’t quite attained the next level of success, perhaps because he likes to do his own thing (this may be a reason he can currently be found earning a crust and adding style to the overrated Hannibal), as does one of his heroes Terry Gilliam (Natali can’t claim to be quite so distinctive).
The finale works thematically, and Natali stages it efficiently, but it does feel like it’s gone down the genre staple route (protagonist returns to face the monster alone). The most surprising part of Haunter is its unabashed happy ending. Lisa is reunited with her family in the afterlife, having defeating the Pale Man during a so-so showdown. Sure, Natali adds McHattie calling Lisa over the credits, but that was probably a producer’s stipulation in case it did enough business to warrant a moribund sequel. It will be a shame if Natali’s career lingers in development hell (adaptations of High Rise and Swamp Thing). Haunter is one of the better haunted household movies of late, economically told while favouring narrative twists and turns over shock tactics.