Directed by Vincenzo Natali
Distributed by MPI/IFC Midnight
There’s no denying that Vincenzo Natali has a longstanding tradition of making thought-provoking and often challenging films; between Cube, the highly underrated Splice or even the sci-fi thriller Cypher, the Canadian filmmaker has always been known to deliver risky and compelling stories. Unfortunately his latest feature, Haunter, which premiered during SXSW last weekend, ends up coming in a bit below his usual high held bar despite Natali’s best efforts to give us new spin on the supernatural realm.
That’s not to say that Haunter doesn’t start out promisingly enough – Natali does evoke a nice atmosphere and sense of mystery as we watch a teenager named Lisa (Abigail Breslin) going about her daily routine in the mid-1980’s and beginning to get an overwhelming case of déjà vu as it seems like time is standing still for her and her family. Every day she wakes up and her mother (Michelle Nolden) asks her to take care of the laundry while her father (Peter Outerbridge) is stuck out in the garage working on their car that never seems to run. Soon enough, Lisa figures out just why she and her family are trapped inside their house, their lives stuck on a continuous loop- they’re all dead (not a spoiler, it’s in the synopsis).
But of course Lisa breaks the routine one day, and soon a menacing figure known only as The Pale Man (Stephen McHattie) arrives, warning Lisa that if she keeps trying to break the routine and question what’s happened to them, great harm will come to her and her family (how exactly you hurt dead people is just one of the themes that never quite gets answered), which prompts her to begin looking for clues as to the identity of The Pale Man and why she and her family are doomed to repeat that fateful day over and over again inside their house.
And for about the first 40 minutes, Natali’s exploration of this concept is fun, albeit nothing we haven’t seen before. But for some reason, once the ultra-creepy entity known as The Pale Man arrives, it seems like we shift tonally from supernatural thriller territory almost to a story you’d expect from more family-friendly television fare. The concept gets muddled when we begin to experience multiple versions of reality, which seems like a good idea, but it just never got fleshed out fully.
Haunter features solid performances from both Breslin and McHattie, but they don’t nearly make up for the film’s second act, which suffers from long stretches of time where literally nothing happens except Lisa just crawling around in various parts of her house and trying to put the pieces together of this mystery. Haunter plods along until its finale, and what started off somewhat strongly moves across the finish line to a shrug-inducing conclusion.
The biggest problem with Haunter is that it is missing Natali’s trademark spark, and that’s a shame as the movie has a great visual style, just no real substance to it, making for a bit of a letdown of a follow-up to his squirm-inducing Splice, one of the more controversial studio horror flicks in some time. Haunter tries its best to scare up some frights and deliver a new twist on a supernatural tale but misses the mark more than it hits it. Here’s hoping Natali can get back to what he does best next time he steps behind the camera.
2 1/2 out of 5
2 out of 5