The haunted house is a staple of the horror genre, from its earliest years in silent cinema with the likes of Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), through Jack Clayton’s masterpiece The Innocents (1961) and Robert Wise’s definitive haunted house picture, The Haunting (1963); all the way to contemporary interpretations such as Alejandro Amenabar’s international hit The Others (2001). However, for all these highlight moments, the haunted house sub-genre is one that often falls into familiar patterns that can be traced all the way back to those silent days. Trust the director of the cult classic Cube (1997), Vincenzo Natali, to bring fresh ideas and vitality to the sub-genre with Haunter, a very different kind of horror picture.

Haunter tells the tale of Lisa and her family. The audience is introduced to them on the eve of Lisa’s 16th birthday; they are just a normal 1980’s family living a suburban lifestyle, playing board games, eating meatloaf and watching Murder She Wrote together before bed. Only something is very wrong…the family has been living this day over and over again on an endless cycle, asleep to this fact, apart from Lisa, who is the only one aware of this infinite loop. However, as she investigates her predicament, uncovering many of the house’s secrets, she makes contact with a girl from another time…and draws the attention of a sinister pale man, who holds the key to her fate, and the fate of another in danger.

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Immediately, the concept of time travel, the supernatural and shock horror combined is a potent cocktail; one that, before viewing the film, might be treated with trepidation for risk of the narrative becoming too convoluted. However, the narrative beautifully weaves the layers of depth within the film as it progresses. Opening with a groundhog day-style repetition of the day, that emphasizes Lisa’s frustration by repeating the same mundane details in an accelerated montage, the film lingers just long enough before twisting into something darker and more challenging, intellectually and emotionally. Indeed, for a film with such complex ideas, the driving force is the emotional, rather than the psychological, exploring family relationships, fear of losing the family, teenage frustration and the connection between people through objects of emotional value. In this sense, Haunter can be understood as a raw melodrama, intensified by emotional extremes and a twisted horror sensibility. A combination that makes Haunter a tender and, at times, moving experience, one that works in perfect harmony with the creeping horror Natali creates, hanging on the edges of every frame, unleashed in waves against the audience’s nervous system.

Compared to the sharp and science fiction horrors of Cube and Splice, Haunter’s soft period style seems like the work of an entirely different filmmaker. Yet, once you look closely at the film, Natali’s fingerprints are all over it, in terms of the subtle details and textures of the world he has created. Natali takes time and care to establish the pattern of this single tragic day, every image holding importance and revealing the family dynamic. However, once the mystery intensifies and secrets begin to rise to the surface, Natali unleashes his creative talents to craft a gothic poem that transcends time and enters a dream space. A classical fairytale thrust into a modern context, Natali’s imagery (the secret basement door, the doll’s house, the leering incinerator) and aesthetic virtuosity is perhaps his most complete achievement; in particular, one crucial time jump into the distant past is reflected by a complete change in visual style, reflecting the hand cranked eeriness of early cinema, jittering and jarring in a brutal fashion that perfectly illustrates the inventiveness and timeless style of Haunter.

Abigail Breslin takes the challenge of playing the very heart of the film in her stride, with a performance beyond her years. As Lisa, she has to balance the innocence and curiosity of a child, the angst of a teenager trying to find herself, the strength and will of an adult, and the weariness of a lost soul. Somehow she manages to bring all these elements together to create a sympathetic and believable heroine, who the audience is able to connect to and feed off of her emotional resonance. Alongside Breslin, the film is dominated by Stephen McHattie as the ghoulish Pale Man, the force at the dark heart of the film’s mystery. As soon as he enters the film, the combination of McHattie’s physicality and knowing dialogue, Natali’s deliberate framing and focus upon the details of his cracked, gaunt face, and Breslin selling the sense of sudden fear and the physical reaction he has upon her, crafts an introduction that establishes his power and threat; one that only increases as the film builds and grows darker and darker. One of the film’s highlights is the sheer chemistry and continuing battle between The Pale Man and Lisa. It is a compelling duel of wills, one that is genuinely unsettling at times. Like all good villains, he makes the audience even more emotionally invested and engaged with the hero.

Haunter is a bold horror melodrama that feels fresh and yet timeless in its stylization. Rich in atmosphere, finessed visual textures and a cast that deliver emotional and honest performance, led by a career best performance from Abigail Breslin, Haunter will not be for all tastes, but it is an interesting blend for those looking for a nuanced and reflective horror experience.

VERDICT: [rating=4]

About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980’s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments: mattpaul61@o2.co.uk