Vincenzo Natali has it in for your head. He likes to screw with it. Films like Cube and Splice took trippy genre concepts and mined them for human interest, unexpected character development and unique forms of suspense. They’re not what you’d call “high concept,” really. What if you were stuck in a cube? What if you made a hot Frankenstein monster? His latest, Haunter, is of a piece with those earlier films. It’s clever, unexpected, and elevated by an engaging leading lady performance from Abigail Breslin. It’s also convoluted as hell thanks to a concept that’s hard to describe and harder, apparently, to dramatize.
Breslin plays Lisa, a fifteen-year-old girl with a penchant for Siouxsie and the Banshees shirts and playing clarinet. It’s the day before her sixteenth birthday, and it has been for a very long time. Unfortunately for Lisa, Haunter takes place mostly in the early 1980s, so she’s never seen Groundhog Day, and has nothing to relate her situation to. She gets up every morning – never having slept – to same fights with her mom, the same macaroni and cheese for lunch, the exact same episode of “Murder, She Wrote.” She tries to go outside, but her house is surrounded by a thick, soupy fog, and riding her bike in a straight line takes her right back up to the family driveway every time. She’s stuck. Haunter doesn’t go very long before we find out Lisa’s dead, in an afterlife that follows some of the Beetlejuice rules.
Haunter has several story elements working against it from the start, but Natali & Co. maneuver around them as best they can. It’s difficult to maintain momentum in a film that, by definition, features constant scene repetition. Haunter does a good job of filling its scenes with hidden clues, and an even better job of using that repetition to make the occasional breaks from monotony all the more striking, and definitely more unsettling. Haunter also has a pretty big problem with its heroine, who can’t die and, by extension, can’t really be threatened by the film’s menace, when he/she/it does rear his/her/its ominous head. She’ll feel threatened, and Abigail Breslin has a superlative “I’m Scared” face, but the audience knows better, and detachment is an understandable – perhaps even unavoidable – response.
Haunter doesn’t have much in the way of suspense, when you really think about it. It’s a puzzle, and putting that puzzle together is the fun part. You don’t assemble a jigsaw puzzle just to see the damned sailboat; you put it together to exercise your mind a bit. Haunter works best in the early stages, when it’s an enigmatic spook story whose rules and secrets are kept just out of reach. By the time all the questions are answered (more or less), the solutions are either frustratingly formulaic or too complicated to explain properly as Haunter picks up momentum in the final act. With a set-up this broad, it was probably necessary to ground Haunter in at least a few old-fashioned horror conceits, but it may have been wiser not to end with them. Imagine eating at a four-star restaurant, your taste buds exploding with new sensations from foods you can’t even pronounce (let alone make for yourself), and then you find out that dessert is a Snickers. Sure, everyone likes a Snickers, but they don’t qualify as a grand finale.
Haunter’s not bad though. Breslin is great, as are the rest of the supporting cast, who have to do a whole lot with very, very little, repeating the same dialogue and scenarios over and over again but endearing themselves in the proess. Natali has a lot of fun cooking up spooky imagery, and the pacing never lags (although I suspect, now that I know how Haunter is put together, that it may drag a bit on future viewings). Haunter is an eerie horror thriller, just maybe a little too clever for its own good. And especially its own ending.
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William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast, co-star of The Trailer Hitch, and the writer of The Test of Time. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.