Enough heart and ambition to earn some admiration for its efforts.
It doesn’t take very long for Vincenzo Natali‘s Haunter to get to the point. What starts out as a typical boring Sunday for Lisa (Abigail Breslin) takes a turn when her parents take issue with her weird behaviour. She tells them that every day is the same and, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, she’s stuck in some sort of time loop. It’s only a matter of time before Lisa starts poking around the house to find any explanation for what’s going on, leading to her usual daily routine being interrupted by the arrival of a telephone repairman (Stephen McHattie, one of Canada’s best actors working today). He asks Lisa how long she’s been “awake” and leaves her with a warning: If she keeps investigating and contacts the living, he’ll make sure her entire family will suffer dearly.
The reveal that Lisa and her family are actually dead is where Haunter starts, and the simple act of using this as the jumping off point (think The Others, except with the ending pushed all the way to the start) makes the film a more refreshing take on the old ghost story. Natali, who is best known for messing with genre expectations in films like Cube and Splice, turns his eye toward the horror genre this time. Not much of Haunter is especially tense or scary (it would be best classified as a supernatural mystery/thriller), but it manages to be a fun, yet flawed yarn.
Haunter is fascinated with the idea of the afterlife being some sort of endlessly repeating purgatory. It’s the terror of banality that drives a lot of the horror in the film, with Natali and screenwriter Matthew Brian King cleverly using it as a metaphor for teenage boredom. Abigail Breslin thankfully plays more on Lisa’s vulnerability and fear, making her feel more like an ordinary teenage girl than some sort of bratty adolescent.
As Lisa begins to look deeper into who (or what) is trapping her family, the atmosphere of the first half begins to dissipate. King begins piling on other elements into the film like alternate dimensions, possession and establishing different rules in the film’s universe that make the proceedings feel unnecessarily complicated. A subplot taking place at the house during the present (with a cameo from Natali regular David Hewlett) takes an interesting turn when the plot reveals itself fully, but the inclusion of so many other elements dampen the story’s effectiveness. As the story begins to unravel, the film’s internal logic starts to collapse upon itself. It may be an interesting portrayal of purgatory, but putting more than several seconds of thought into how the film’s afterlife operates will produce plenty of plot holes.
Natali is enough of an expert in genre films to make the script’s weaker elements stick in the background. A brief sequence in the climax, where the screen and soundtrack get warped significantly, is a fun little aside, and the pace keeps things moving along nicely. Haunter is a flawed film with enough heart and ambition to earn some admiration for its efforts.