Surprise; they were dead all long! It’s been used in many horror films over the years, but nearly always at the last minute as a final “what a twist!”. However, Haunter does things very differently, as, though it doesn’t say things outright, it makes no secret of the fact that this is a tale about ghosts from their perspective. By not saving it to the end, it means the story can engage more with the concept of what it would mean to be a ghost, and it offers up more interesting questions and mysteries.
Lisa (Abigail Breslin) is one day short of being sixteen. And she has been for a very long time. Her and her family have been going through the same day over and over again and she has recently woken up to that fact that for her there is no tomorrow. She soon realises why this is happening and that her family aren’t alone in their house. There is someone living there that needs her help… and someone else there that she needs help against.
The most obvious connections that people describing this film will make are with The Others and Groundhog Day. Actually, a better point of comparison might be with the classic TV series Sapphire & Steel. Both use small locations and casts for maximum tension and both play interesting games with time. Ghost stories have always been about connections with the present and the past, and this film takes it a step further with some elaborate rules in regards to different “time zones” within the house. This could be a point of major confusion, if it weren’t for screenwriter Brian King conveying the ideas well without the need for too much tedious exposition.
The director, Vincenzo Natali, is better known for sci-fi work such as Cube, Cypher and Splice. Though Haunter is more supernatural, it does share quite a lot of DNA with Cube in its use of a small environment for the story and the gradual reveal of the rules and principles governing it. Natali also has an excellent eye for atmosphere and, while this film isn’t as conventionally scary or full of jump scares like a lot of recent ghost films, it has an incredibly unsettling mood. He also manages to avoid the trap of making the film too repetitive, which is harder than it sounds given the plot involves a time loop. One great success is the matter of having real stakes in the film. If you confirm early on that your protagonist is already deceased, it does raise the question “how can things get worse for them?”. This film does find a way, and Natali does bring a great sense of tension and urgency to proceedings.
The film’s biggest strength though is it’s cast and characters. Abigail Breslin is perfect in the lead, giving a character who could have been far too much a stock “you just don’t understand me” teenager a lot of depth. She really sells the role of someone who is at first despairing of her situation, but then is ready to fight back against it, even though it means having to face up to a lot of her fears. As she is front and centre in every single scene, carrying the whole story on her shoulders, and more than up to the task. The cast overall is a good ensemble, with everyone getting at least one major scene to shine. Of particular note would be Lisa’s father played by Peter Outerbridge, Vincenzo Natali regular David Hewlett and Stephen McHattie as the film’s utterly terrifying main antagonist, the Pale Man. Natali is one of those directors who nearly always gets great performances from his casts, and this is no exception.
Haunter isn’t an out and out fright fest, but it’s a solidly chilling ghost story that holds up well against recent titles like The Conjuring. There are a few flaws, such as the final act getting a bit too standard thriller-ish, but overall it’s a fascinating exploration of some interesting ideas with a very likeable cast. It’s a tale of hope against despair, about even though it may seem sometimes that tomorrow offers nothing, we can fight back and claim ourselves the future we want. Vincenzo Natali has been responsible for some very memorable off beat titles over the years and this is a great addition to his range.