Directed by Vincenzo Natali
Groundhog Day meets The Others in Vincenzo Natali’s fantastical ghost story Haunter. Abigail Breslin stars as Lisa, a young girl who has come to the realisation that she and her family are living the same day over and over again — problem being, it’s the day they died. Attempting to unravel the mystery as to why this is happening, Abigail sets about finding ways to “wake” the rest of the family to what is happening and also begins to form a bond with Olivia — a young girl living in her family’s house in the present day — via a rudimentary style of friendly possession.
Lisa’s activities, however, soon attract the attention of The Pale Man (McHattie), the malevolent spirit of a dead killer who still resides in the house and doesn’t take kindly to the meddling of this young dead girl against his determination to continue killing. So, while The Pale Man sets about his particular style of murdering whole families in the real world, Abigail goes head-to-head with the cruel spirit in an attempt to warn the living and awaken the memories of previous victims so that they may gather the power to bring him down.
The performances throughout Haunter are generally top-notch, especially Breslin and Michelle Nolden as Lisa’s mother, with well-drawn characters and some genuinely emotional scenes as the various family members regain their memories of that fateful night and come to terms with the knowledge that they’re trapped in a limbo-like state of repetition. McHattie is perfectly cast as the antagonist, sporting a rasping vocal style with a wonderfully evil grin stretched right across his face. Where Natali falls over, however, is in the story. We’ve seen the endlessly re-lived day a number of times in cinema, and the repetitive nature of the action is, rarely without exception, a big problem in a narrative of this nature. Unfortunately, Haunter is no different, with Lisa’s activities continuing in a repetitive nature for slightly too long once the overriding mystery has been revealed. Compounding this problem is the lack of any true stakes for Lisa and her family.
The Pale Man threatens that if she doesn’t back off, he’ll make her family suffer for eternity; yet, we regularly see throughout that no matter what happens during the day, they’ll always wake up to restart it all the next morning. They’re already dead, and we receive no demonstration of just what he’ll do to them that’s worse than, y’know, killing them. Which he’s already done. In fact, Lisa seems to take his warnings with the same amount of consideration, as she carries on regardless with little consequence. Of course, the stakes are very real for those in the living world, but when Natali is more concerned with creating a Guillermo Del Toro style sense of wonderment and otherworldly enchantment in the land of the dead, we’re never offered much of a chance to get to care a whole lot for Olivia and the rest of her family.
For a director renowned for his visual style, it’s surprising that Natali also doesn’t have too much fun here with the staging and cinematography, too. That’s not to say it’s flat, as it most definitely packs some visual ambition; however, a few moments of hokey editing and digital effects feel more contrived and desperate than they are frightening. Therein lies much of the problem at the core of Haunter — it just isn’t scary, and the morose pace sees investigatory scenes with little revelation drag on to patience-testing degrees.
The idea at the core is sound, and an interesting proposition (a house haunted on various chronological levels simultaneously), but ultimately it’s all bogged down with a slovenly approach grasping at a sense of wonder and topped off with an overly melodramatic, soppy finale. Despite an intriguing premise and laudable performances, Haunter winds up a scareless supernatural misfire.
2 out of 5