Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Mac Carter
Writer: Andrew Barrer
Producer: Bill Block, Paul Hanson, John Hegeman, Anton Lessine, Sasha Shapiro
Stars: Harrison Gilbertson, Liana Liberato, Ione Skye, Jacki Weaver
After his family moves into a reportedly cursed home, Evan Asher meets a young woman with a mysterious connection to a ghost haunting the house.
After their three children die tragically in separate incidents, the Morello house earns a reputation for being cursed through whispered word of mouth among the locals. And when Franklin Morello ends up with a twisted neck following a séance gone wrong, pediatrician Janet Morello finally gets the ghastly hint and moves out of the haunted home.
Enter the Ashers. With a family unit comprised of a son and two daughters with the same ages and genders as the trio of Morello children, it seems only a matter of time before the “Morello Curse” moves on to plague the home’s innocent new owners.
18-year-old Evan Asher meets Sam, a mysterious local girl with a troubled home life of her own, and she shows Evan a secret room in the attic that hides a box used for communicating with the dead. When they finally connect with the spirit world, the two teens open a portal that unlocks the truth about the mystery hiding in the house’s haunted walls.
As ghost stories in horror movies go, “Haunt” plays out like a calmer version of “The Haunting in Connecticut” (review here) or “The Conjuring” (review here) with a suppressed sense of cinematic flair. “Haunt” has a more than competent production design and look, albeit one that operates on the same subdued level as the screenplay, which is ultimately too tame to stand out in a subgenre growing more crowded by the hour.
The story is intently focused on the two teenagers at its center to a fault. On one hand, it makes for an intimate portrait of a likable enough young couple unraveling a mystery as other threads and characters fade into the background around them. On the other, the plot of “Haunt” is so narrow that there is no breathing room for meaningful depth or jolting scares to come to life.
“Haunt” avoids taking risks on its technique, settling on too many same old, same old shots of dusty rooms, flickering lights, and fleeting shadows to visually unsettle the atmosphere. The script never envisions a truly dire situation in the house itself, though. Most of the family members go about their lives without encountering so much as a creak or a cobweb, creating such low stakes in the haunting that it becomes hard to invest much interest in the eventual outcome.
Liana Liberato as Sam oddly resembles a cherubic Sasha Grey with arched eyebrows suggesting a sultry sense of allure above sleepy eyes bearing a cloud of darkness. Young actor Harrison Gilbertson turns in a performance on the same capable level as the more experienced veterans of “Haunt” including Ione Skye and Jacki Weaver. Like the production itself, this is a cast that ratchets up the script to a level higher than the one on the written page.
“Haunt” is highly successful at gradually weaving a drape of dread over itself, although it is less on the mark at keeping that fire stoked as the momentum runs out of steam. Through barely creeping dolly movements and a score loaded with drawn-out single notes, cinematographer Adam Marsden and composer Reinhold Heil accentuate the deliberately slow-crawling mood with appropriate style.
Yet despite the all-around remarkable professional efforts, “Haunt” delivers a ghost story that is neither truly scary nor thoroughly compelling. And that last one is a hard target to miss when attention only has to be sustained for 80 minutes.
Well acted and exceptional looking, “Haunt” is really the best movie that could be produced from lukewarm material. Unfortunately for the film, its tone is too tepid and its tale too tired to add up to a quality production that will be remembered in years to come.
Review Score: 60