Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Writer: Brian King
Producer: Steven Hoban
Stars: Abigail Breslin, Peter Outerbridge, Michelle Nolden, Peter DaCunha, Samantha Weinstein, David Hewlett, Sarah Manninen, Eleanor Zichy, Stephen McHattie
Inexplicably forced to relive the same day again and again, a teenaged girl must solve the mystery of her haunted home and its dark connection to a sinister serial killer.
Because Lisa Johnson appears doomed to repeat the same Sunday before her sixteenth birthday over and over again without end, it would be easy to simplify “Haunter” by describing it as the ghost story version of “Groundhog Day.” The “what is real” and “who is a ghost” aspects will inevitably draw comparisons to “The Sixth Sense” and “The Others,” too. But whereas the hooks in those two cases were their climactic reveals, “Haunter” uses its twist as the catalyst for a more richly layered story. The buildup is just as important, if not more so, than the revelations themselves.
An average day of laundry, practicing the clarinet, and watching “Murder, She Wrote” with the family is already boring enough for any teenager. Mundane turns into monotonous when Lisa becomes hip to the fact that this is literally the same routine that she has had every day for the past week. “Haunter” opens with Lisa already resigned to her predicament, as well as to the futility of convincing her family that they are unwitting participants in the repetition. With the premise out in the open upfront, the story wastes no time in putting the characters and the audience on a level playing field.
The audience also does not have long to wait for whispered voices and bumps in the night to send Lisa into fits of wide-eyed fright. Confined to the family home thanks to a choking fog outside, Lisa begins unraveling the mystery of her time paradox confinement and how it relates to the house’s haunted history. Ghosts from the past, present, and future then collide for a unique take on several familiar horror movie themes.
As Lisa, Abigail Breslin is called upon to showcase an impressive range of emotion for any actress, much less one of her young age. A less capable performer under the tutelage of a less talented director could have easily mired her character in a one-note portrayal of gape-mouthed shivering and typical teen angst. Without much dialogue to fall back on, Breslin emotes through strong visual characterization. She wears a complex look of confusion, frustration, worry, and ennui that sells her as a multi-faceted personality through screen presence alone.
Vaguely reminiscent of a thin Rutger Hauer, Stephen McHattie exudes towering menace as an imposing serial killer despite pale skin and a slim frame. All of the actors, no matter how small the role, could be called out individually for their striking contributions. Suffice it to say, the cast is more than up to the task of fulfilling director Vincenzo Natali’s vision.
That vision is a carefully constructed blend of classic ghost story, haunted house thriller, and serial killer suspense. As “Haunter” melts from one sub-genre to another, jump scares give way to eerie tension, which in turn pave the path for visceral shocks of terror. Typical conventions are on hand, including a Ouija board, an all too real imaginary friend, a secret buried under a floorboard, and more than one ghostly possession. But it is a fantastic experience watching Natali dip into that toy box only enough to stay effectively creepy. “Haunter” satisfies on multiple levels because it paints around several corners of increasingly frightening intensity.
In more than one instance, however, Vincenzo Natali is guilty of overindulging in fanciful artistry. Excessive strobe flashes and film speed changes try harder than necessary to accent the mood in a few places, although these scenes are outweighed by a far greater number of interesting visual choices. A slow motion dissolve of bodies decaying into skeletons and a skipping record motif to depict a scene from the past are two such memorable moments.
Natali is also not the only one who tries doing too much, albeit with good intentions. There are subtler ways to depict a day from 1985 without dressing the haunted house like a nostalgia museum. From Pac-Man on an Atari 2600 to a Ronald Reagan television speech, a Rubik’s Cube, a Betamax videocassette, and even an 8-track tape, the production design goes just a touch overboard in selling the retro time period.
“Haunter” starts as a seemingly simple goosebump ghost story before spinning the atmosphere on its ear at every twist and every turn. That beginning of false familiarity may give a seasoned viewer the impression that s/he is about to tread routine ground yet again in much the same way as Lisa. That sigh of lowered expectations then ends up working to the movie’s benefit when “Haunter” evolves into one of the best haunted horrors in recent years.
Review Score: 85