REVIEW: HAUNTER / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: VINCENZO NATALI / STARRING: ABIGAIL BRESLIN, STEPHEN MCHATTIE, PETER OUTERBRIDGE, MICHELLE NOLDEN, DAVID HEWLETT / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
It’s probably a reasonable assumption to say that director Vincenzo Natali doesn’t suffer from claustrophobia. His impressive 1997 debut feature Cube was set primarily within a maze of deadly, identical rooms. Prior to that he directed the short film Elevated, which was set entirely in, well, an elevator.
For his fifth feature film, the director has returned to the single location format that made his name, albeit a somewhat larger one. This time the setting is a suburban family home, which the director has used as the location for an intricate, largely original ghost story.
Telling a story from the perspective of a ghost is nothing new. Both The Sixth Sense and The Others used this concept to become smash hits. Unlike those movies, though, Haunter has the lead character realise her supernatural status early on, and instead tells an entirely different story.
It starts off with every teenager’s worst nightmare. It’s 1985 and 15 year old Lisa Johnson (Breslin) is trapped in a perpetual, boring day. It’s the day before her 16th birthday and she’s stuck in the house due to the heavy fog outside. Her dad’s fixing the car, her brother’s playing Pac-Man, her mum’s making macaroni cheese and nagging her to help with the laundry. The highlight of the day will be watching Murder She Wrote. And the next day it’s still the day before her 16th birthday...
It’s a neat concept. What teenager hasn’t felt like time is standing still when they’re stuck with their family? Here it’s the literal truth. Every day is the same for Lisa. Soon however, her repetitive existence takes a turn when she begins to investigate ghostly goings on in the house. Little changes creep into the routine. Her dad starts acting in an unusual manner, the supernatural occurrences become more and more frequent, and then there’s a locked door in the basement which holds a strange fascination for her.
Rather than the movie overplaying its supernatural Groundhog Day concept, Lisa soon realises that both her and her family are dead. To make matters worse, a mysterious visitor (McHattie) shows up and warns her off investigating any further, advising that “there are some things worse than death.”
Naturally she ignores him and makes contact with the house’s present day occupant, her 21st century counterpart, Olivia. It soon becomes apparent that Olivia and her family are facing a similar fate to Lisa’s, and that the key to saving them is discovering what happened to her own family.
As with the director’s previous movie Splice, the intriguing concept doesn’t quite pay off. Not overdoing the Groundhog Day thing works ultimately as both a strength and a weakness. Veering away from this early on saves the film from getting repetitive. However, the murder mystery that replaces it is more conventional, and therefore, ultimately, less interesting.
That said, there’s much to enjoy here. Abigail Breslin, following impressive turns in Zombieland and her Oscar nominated performance in Little Miss Sunshine, gives another (no pun intended) spirited performance. With her underdeveloped family barely getting a look in, it’s down to her to carry the film in her largest role to date. McHattie also impresses, as a killer whose reach stretches out from beyond the grave. There are some good shocks and creepy moments aplenty, with some impressive ghosts, and probably the most sinister boiler room since Freddy Krueger hung up his razor gloves. Natali constructs an intricate labyrinth of a plot for his characters (the Pac-Man metaphor, with ghosts floating around a maze, is particularly apt). And there are some other beautiful little touches too, such as when Lisa enters Olivia’s time and we see her utterly baffled by the future. Olivia’s iPad is science fiction to a girl from the '80s.
When Haunter works it’s an effective, creepy horror. Ultimately it doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts, but it’s an entertaining film from one of the genre’s more original filmmakers.