In 2003, in between his ingenious breakout cult sci-fi Cube (1997) and his well-received mad-scientist re-arrival Splice (2009), Vincenzo Natali made the little-seen Canadian oddity Nothing. The film involved two guys finding that they and their entire house have been somehow transported into a white void, with their attempts to strike outwards simply leading them home again.
It’s territory to which Natali has now returned with Haunter. The plot and the genre trappings are different, but that basic isolated concept is, once again, central. The last couple of years have seen him heading for adaptations of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (possibly now abandoned) and JG Ballard’s High Rise (now underway with Ben Wheatley directing), but his path seems inexorably to have lead him to another homestead removed mysteriously from reality. Natali isn’t this film’s screenwriter (it stems from Brian King, who also wrote Natali’s Cypher), but it’s clear what attracted him.
Nothing’s blank emptiness has, in Haunter, been replaced by an oppressive grey fog, but there’s another all-directions-lead-home reveal when protagonist Lisa (Abigail Breslin) attempts an escape by bicycle. Adding to her entrapment however is a Groundhog Day scenario in which she and her family are repeating the same 24 hours endlessly, with only Lisa aware of the fact. Beyond this it’s difficult to talk about the film’s premise without spoilers, although some of the mystery’s layers are unpeeled early enough that several reviewers – and the trailer! – haven’t considered this an issue. You might also infer some of the answers from the title, but the film certainly functions better the less you know. Suffice to say the broader story involves a serial killer who’s been operating undetected for decades, and that many of the revelations are supernaturally inclined.
Such a small, tightly focused film stands or falls on its writing and performances, so it’s a great strength that the characters are well drawn and well played. Breslin, who’s in practically – if not literally – every scene, confidently and seemingly effortlessly carries the narrative: juggling frustration, anguish, pissed-off determination and even some humour as she endures repeated supernatural moments and turns goth Nancy Drew to battle evil. She’s given excellent support by Michelle Nolden and Peter Outerbridge as Lisa’s parents, and a strong antagonist in the always-reliable Stephen McHattie, recently seen on the other side of the law in Pascal Laugier’s The Tall Man.
The cinematography and production design are also top notch. Peter Cosco’s house and Jon Joffin’s beautifully atmospheric images give Haunter the sheen of a classic ghost story: there are nods to The Haunting and The Innocents, and reminders of Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others, which reverently pastiched both. The period setting also helps, although Haunter replaces decayed Victoriana with the 1980s, giving Breslin a Siouxsie t-shirt and Bauhaus posters. Lisa’s first visit to 2013, in a brilliant touch, is presented as a trip to a gleaming sci-fi future of impossibly advanced technology. We forget we live there sometimes.
Fundamentally, though, despite its more than efficient genre tropes, Haunter barely functions as horror, and as a supernatural thriller is not especially thrilling. Beautifully mounted, carefully composed and imaginatively directed, it’s diverting and easy to aesthetically admire, but not something that especially engages or scares.
The ending, without going into details, also feels conservative (you might even say twee) and undermines both Breslin’s edgy heroine and some early scenes that amusingly eviscerated her rote family life. In many ways it’s probably best viewed as a kids’ film. It’s a very good one: a handsome and classy Goosebumps instalment that may well grip younger viewers. But it’s a pretty mild hundred minutes for more seasoned audiences.
Haunter is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.
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