Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce
It’s no secret I’m a big fan of ghost stories, and I’ve lamented before how hard they are to find among all the slasher horror gore fest flicks that pass for scary fare these days. So I’m always excited to stumble across a new one on film. One such recent discovery is Vincenzo Natali’s quiet Canadian production Haunter, starring Abigail Breslin (Maggie, Ender’s Game, Signs), Peter Outerbridge (Orphan Black, Nikita), Michelle Nolden (RED, Lost Girl, Everwood, Nero Wolfe), and veteran TV fixture Stephen McHattie (Adam-12, Kojak, The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, Quantum Leap, Deep Space Nine, Enterprise, Haven, Watchmen, 300, A History of Violence).
It’s 1984, and Lisa Johnson (Breslin) feels stuck in a rut: Every day is just like the next. Just like the next, and she’s the only one in her family of four who’s noticed. The same Walkie-Talkie wakeup call from little brother Robbie (Peter DaCunha), the same pancake breakfast, the same friendly quarrel with Mom (Nolden) over the same load of laundry. (“I did the laundry yesterday. You just don’t remember that I did.”) Wearily she trudges though clarinet practice, Dad fixing the car in the garage, a conversation about a birthday celebration that never comes, and the same episode of Murder She Wrote. Until one morning, she’s startled Awake by a creepy noise in the laundry room, and discovers that her house, and her family, are at the heart of a long history of dark secrets. And another girl—another family—needs Lisa’s help, if she’s ever to escape the time loop.
Many parts of Haunter will feel familiar, maybe even derivative—but that’s OK. In some parts it feels like a remake of The Others, and there are echoes of The Ring and every knockoff of Groundhog Day you’ve ever seen. (See one of our early takes on time loops at borg.com here). But it works, and it works well. Lisa’s world is tightly focused and claustrophobic, and her navigation of several parallel timestreams is seamless and gripping. Director Natali, known for his work on projects including Orphan Black, The Returned, Hannibal, and The Strain, has richly layered the film with finely wrought symbolism, from the leitmotifs of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” playing throughout, to Lisa’s Souxie and the Banshees concert T, to the dark fairytale iconography Lisa must wade through to learn the truth.
Lisa makes an appealing heroine—she’s smart, determined, and unravels her own mystery thoughtfully and logically. All the actors bring subtlety and heart to their performances, but it’s Breslin’s fine acting that carries the film, as she deftly balances a taut cat-and-mouse game with villain Edgar (McHattie). Haunter‘s scares are ones of suspense, creepiness, and surprise. Despite the genuinely dark violence of the revealed backstory, there’s no gore here at all—it’s all psychological.
We’ve reviewed all sorts of movies at borg.com, from the biggest of the big budget blockbusters, to shoestring indie flix. Haunter clearly didn’t have a fraction of the budget of Guillermo del Toro’s masterful Crimson Peak, but it doesn’t need it. Like S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk, reviewed here at borg.com recently, Vincenzo Natali makes the most of his small cast and single set. He gives us an intimate look at a haunted house and its denizens, and it’s tense and shivery throughout. Nicely done.
Haunter is available to stream via IFC On Demand, Amazon Video, and Netflix, or grab a copy for keeps here at Amazon.com.