Judge Gordon Sullivan is ready for winter. He always carries spare socks and a horror DVD.
Trapped by an evil from her past.
There are few long-term benefits to being a child star. Unless the star in question makes a smooth transition to the world of adult stardom, they end up the butt of jokes for late-night monologues more often than not. The question of how to make that transition as smoothly as possible is always a fraught one. Some actors start with mature roles young, acting in indie films to earn cred, while others delay as long as possible the move from "teen playing a teen to adult playing adult." Seemingly a rite of passage, though, for most actresses (whether child stars or not) is to play the lead in a horror film. Abigail Breslin has long been bouncing between indie flicks (like Little Miss Sunshine and Zombieland) and more mainstream fare (Signs, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl). Now Haunter gives her the opportunity to carry a horror film, and for better or worse she's the best thing about the film.
Facts of the Case
Lisa (Abigail Breslin) is a typical teenager in 1986: she wakes up, has pancakes for breakfast, and goes about her day. Except every day for her is just like the last. More importantly, she seems to be the only person in her family who realizes this startling fact. Lisa's home, however, is strange, full of noises and disappearing hallways. When The Pale Man shows up at the door to warn Lisa about her behavior, she realizes that her family is stuck and she needs to do something about it.
The big thing that sinks Haunter is a pervasive sense of disappointment. Though I can't claim the title fills me with anticipation, the premise and cast has some serious potential. The basic idea of a teenager being stuck in her house in 1986 slowly discovering something is wrong is pretty good. Things get even better when Lisa starts to communicate with another teenage girl in the present. The concept of teenage angst having spooky origins that transcend time is a clever one. More importantly, the idea of putting the protagonist in an isolated house recalls director Vincenzo Natali's other pressure-cooker narrative Cube. This is a guy who knows how to put characters into an isolated location and let the good stuff happen.
The film also gets its cast right. Putting Abigail Breslin front-and-center is a smart move. Though she's no longer the precocious tween that helped make Zombieland fun, she has a warm, believable presence. Where other actresses might have played up the resentful teenager aspects of the character, Breslin lets most of the angst come from the situation, not her inner turmoil. Her opposite, The Pale Man, is played by Stephen McHattie, who risks being typecast for his menacingly angular face. Whether typecast or not, though, he radiates a quiet menace that simultaneously supports the weirdness of the story without restoring to thundering theatrics to sell his malevolence.
Haunter (Blu-ray) also gets a surprisingly effective release for a low-budget Canadian production that didn't get a theatrical run. The film's 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is top-notch. The film was shot digitally, which serves both the film and this transfer well. The narrative travels through different time periods, so we get digital manipulation of color to signal temporal shifts. These colors are well-saturated, and though manipulated, look very good. The level of detail is also impressive throughout, but more importantly black levels stay consistent and deep, providing a creepy atmosphere when necessary. Overall, the film doesn't suffer from any serious artefacting, meaning this digital presentation is pretty pristine. This DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack, however, does the video one better. It's a consistently busy mix, with all the elements of the house (creaking floors, screeching doors) and the usual ghosty weirdness coming through loud and clear. There's a lot of movement in the soundstage, and the use of music is both clever and clear. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout as well, making this a near-perfect example of the sonic arts.
Extras are also surprisingly impressive. Natali sits down for a commentary full of details about the film's production and how the budget impacted the results. We also get a commentary from screenwriter Brian King. He's not always as engaging as Natali, but he shares a wealth of information on how the screenplay evolved and how his vision compares to the final film. We also get a 20-minute making-of featurette that doesn't offer much over the commentaries except for input from Breslin and McHattie. An odd but engaging feature is a 55-minute collection of Natali's storyboards. They scroll as if ripped from his notebook, with the sound of the film laid overtop them. It's odd to watch, but fascinating, especially for those with an interesting in making films. Finally, there's a static image of the film's teaser poster and the film's trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
All this probably makes Haunter sounds better than it is. That's because, for the most part, the film doesn't capitalize on the material it has to hand. Basically, the film is another in a long line of films where a young girl wanders around a house with some ghostly overtones. Natali goes for psychological spookiness and atmosphere over adding anything substantially new to the genre. The problem is that the atmosphere doesn't do enough to up the tension, and when something is needed to push the stakes up, Haunter doesn't offer violence or gore to make up the lack. So, we get a slightly better-than-average take on the haunted house psychological thriller.
Haunter is one of those films that I want to love. Its cast is great, its premise is solid, and its execution sturdy, but the result is less than the sum of its parts rather than greater than them. That's not a terrible criticism, so fans of Breslin or McHattie will certainly want to check this film out, as will fans of Natali's other films (Cube, Splice). Haunted house fans will especially find something to love in the slightly offbeat take on the genre. The excellent Haunter (Blu-ray) makes it easy to recommend for at least a rental for the curious.
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