For many genre fans, the first introduction to filmmaker Vincenzo Natali was in 1997, when he directed a critically-acclaimed little gem called Cube. Though the film achieved cult classic status, it somehow slipped under my radar, and it wasn’t until 2010 that I became familiar with Natali’s work. That year saw the theatrical release of Splice, a topical and thought-provoking sci-fi flick that quite impressed me. Needless to say, I became a fan.
After taking a few years off, Natali has returned this year with Haunter, a thriller that simultaneously hit limited theaters and On Demand outlets on October 18th. Shifting from sci-fi fare to supernatural spooks, Haunter stars Zombieland‘s Abigail Breslin as Lisa, a teenage girl that’s pretty damn bored with her life. Wake up, eat breakfast, do your chores, have dinner, go to bed, and then do it all over again – we’ve all been there, and Lisa has had just about enough of it. But here’s where things get really interesting…
Lisa and her family actually are stuck in a time warp, living out the exact same day every day of their lives. Lisa wakes up at the same time, has the same pancakes for breakfast, does the same load of laundry, eats the same meatloaf dinner and then retires to the living room to find the same episode of Murder, She Wrote on the TV. It’s perpetually the day before her 16th birthday, perpetually foggy outside, and her dad’s car perpetually won’t start. The real nightmare, for Lisa? She’s the only one in her family that seems to realize that they’re stuck on repeat. Upon making this realization, Lisa stumbles into a decade-spanning paranormal mystery, which she finds to be the key to altering her family’s monotonous routine.
We’ve reached a point where there’s been so much unoriginality for so long in the horror genre that even the slightest twist on a tried and true formula comes out smelling like a rose. After being assaulted by remakes, sequels and ripoffs for what seems like forever now, a little bit of originality goes a whole heck of a long way. Writer Brian King is quite evidently aware of this, and with Haunter he’s put just enough of a spin on a classic paranormal tale to make it seem fresh and new. The overall storyline is far some original, but it’s the execution of that storyline that allows Haunter to really shine.
For me, an original story is half the battle, and Haunter won me over right off the bat with its unique concept. I’m not saying that time travel or even Groundhog Day type scenarios are wholly original in the world of horror, but I cannot recall any movies from the past that told a ghost story the way that King decided to tell his. Considering the fact that haunted house movies have been absolutely done to death in recent years, with each new one coming off like a carbon copy of the last, King’s fresh and clever spin on the subject matter absolutely must be admired and appreciated. Given how much easier it would’ve been for him to write a far more generic story, and simply ride on the backs of previous movies, I personally must commend the effort. As someone who’s seen a whole lot of haunted house movies over the years, I can again safely say that I’ve never seen a haunted house movie that’s been presented like this one before – and for me, that supersedes any shortcomings the movie may have.
… of which it does have a few. Even though it’s only around 100-minutes long, Haunter feels a little bit too long, dragging on and getting slightly less interesting the more things are revealed. The film is never quite as compelling as it is when we as the audience are as in the dark as the characters are, and the storyline feels more suited to a short film than a feature length one. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the entire ride, but the movie definitely could’ve benefited from some run-time trimming. Then again, I typically feel that way about most movies that I watch!
That said, it all comes back to King’s clever story, and his ability to keep things interesting. Haunter is a veritable roller coaster ride of twists and turns, and King never relies on those twists the way most writers tend to. For example, something is revealed less than halfway through the film that could’ve easily been the main twist at the end, but King allows us to unravel the mystery with Lisa, rather than trying to shock us with big reveals. It’s all about the story, and the story is a pretty damn solid one all around. Though it may drag at times, everything comes together in the end for a satisfying conclusion, one that packs quite the emotional little wallop.
One thing I do want to mention is that if you’re looking for a genuinely creepy and scary movie, like Sinister or Insidious, you’re probably not going to find what you’re looking for in Haunter – though Stephen McHattie is delightfully chilling as ‘The Pale Man.’ This one is a whole lot more kid-friendly and at times even quite corny – and I don’t consider either of those things bad things. Quite the contrary, actually. Haunter plays out more like an episode of Are Your Afraid of the Dark? than a horror movie that’s intended to keep us adults up at night, and I personally loved that about it. I’m a huge fan of family-friendly horror films and I feel that the genre has been sorely lacking in that department over the last several years. Movies like Gremlins and The Gate are some of my favorites of all time, and King & Natali very much tapped into that style of movie, the same way Joe Dante recently did with The Hole. I’m not going to say it will be everyone’s cup of tea, but Haunter is the kind of movie I wish I got to experience when I was a kid, and I absolutely love when movies make me feel that way.
Though it may not wind up on any best of the year lists, Haunter is at the end of the day a unique and original spookshow, which is a whole lot more than I can say about most of the horror movies I watched this year. I didn’t think there was any originality left in the sub-genre of haunted house movies, and I am quite pleased to have been proven wrong about that. Who knew?!