“A strong alternative take on a traditional ghost story trope staggering around in the dark trying to find a decent story to fit itself into.”
With a startling nineteen films under her belt since her breakout role in Little Miss Sunshine we are no longer asking the question: “what will Abigail Breslin do as a grown up actress, and will she fade into obscurity like so many others?” Aside from Ruben Fleischer’s wonderful Zombieland (2009) and John Wells’ interesting August: Osage County (2013) Breslin’s career so far has been marked by very ho-hum films. Haunter, her first foray back into the horror genre since Zombieland, is much the same breed. Director Vincenzo Natali’s film doesn’t warrant an in-depth examination. Once you scratch the surface, there isn’t much going on underneath.
One of the simplest and most enjoyable aspects of most horror storytelling is exploring the practicalities of the extraordinary and supernatural. Take the film’s strongest element the reversal of the point of view, from the haunted to the haunter. The idea of a ghost haunting a place, unable to pass on to ‘the other side’ before completing a task, is as old as horror fiction itself. Likewise is the notion that this manifests as a ghost repeating the same appearance and actions every day/every full moon/every anniversary, etc.
What Haunter does is show the flip-side of that. Here we see that the ghosts carry out the same actions again and again – every day – unaware they are dead. To Breslin’s character Lisa Johnson’s family, they wake up every day believing it is the day before her birthday. In another nod to ghost lore, it is Lisa who is the first to be totally aware of the ongoing situation. Obviously it’s common in ghost stories for it to be a a child who first notices something supernatural is occuring, so this inversion is a fun one. It’s this boredom with the repeated monotony of her existence – and some clothes that have mysteriously vanished – that prompts her to begin exploring her situation.
Here is where most of the intriguing elements of the movie end. Becoming bored enough to look for some clothes that have mysteriously vanished in the wash epitomises the bland nature of this film. Matthew Brian King’s screenplay sees Lisa mostly bumble from one plot point to another as she comes into contact with personal items of others who have been equally as murdered as her through the generations. Through contact with these items she’s able to warp into the object owner’s own timeline from her own in 1985. As she tries to piece together why generations of people have been murdered in this house, the audience is left to question why people keep moving into this apparent vortex of death.
Natali does make a good call in casting the always compelling Stephen McHattie, most notable from his terrific performance in the excellent alt-zombie thriller Pontypool (2009). McHattie is the ‘Pale Man’, the evil spirit possessing the house’s occupiers and having them murder their families trapping their ghosts in the house. This is presumably to feed him, or his power. It’s never made clear. Unfortunately the perfect casting of McHattie is completely wasted, with him only being wheeled on to deliver some ominous, threatening lines before being wheeled off again. It’s rare that an actor has such a brooding and menacing presence and a fantastically theatrical and dark voice, so to be given such promise of a terrific antagonist early on in the film for him to fizzle out soon after is a let down.
McHattie delivers the only remotely scary moment in the film however, when he enters the house for the first time. There’s also a nice set-piece in which Lisa’s family rapidly age and crumble around her at the dinner table, à la Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Other than that, the film is a gratingly mainstream affair; all too evidently trying to balance genuine scares with a box office friendly age-rating and thus delivering neither in the ever common pursuit of The Woman in Black Paradox.
Haunter is mostly a strong, alternative take on a traditional ghost story trope staggering around in the dark trying to find a decent story to fit itself into. For the most part however, it’s just bumping into walls.
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Starring: Abigail Breslin, Stephen McHattie, Peter Outerbridge, David Hewlett
Running Time: 93 minutes
DVD Release Date: 14 July 2014
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