A bouncy narrative and surreal visuals can't save 'Haunter' from bland, B-movie purgatory
Haunter IFC Midnight
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Screenplay: Matthew Brian King
Starring: Abigail Breslin, Stephen McHattie, Peter Outerbridge, Michelle Nolden, Peter DaCunha, Eleanor Zichy and Samantha Weinstein
Not rated / 1 hour, 37 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
The films of Vincenzo Natali are always laced with interesting ideas but have not - as of yet - really clicked for me. Cube and Splice are both fascinating concepts rendered less so by a tendency toward tone-deafness and half-baked storytelling. They're ambitious and unwieldy and absolutely distinctive, yet fail to really fulfill the promise of their ideas.
Haunter - released this month with surprisingly little fanfare, given Natali's cult following - is another interesting effort from the filmmaker, but this time in a different way. Here, the ideas are rather old-hat, but the narrative itself goes in circles, shifting between (and conflating) dueling and overlapping memories, repeated scenes and moments, and perpetual dream imagery. When we see a house (which serves as the film's sole location) from the outside and see it almost completely enshrouded in a thick white fog, we know we're not dealing with any semblance of reality.
Indeed, Lisa (Abigail Breslin) - on the eve of her 16th birthday - seems to understand that. It's just that no one else around her does. No one else in her family notices that anything is amiss. No one else realizes that they're repeating the same day, over and over and over. Pancakes for breakfast. The laundry with the missing clothes in the morning. Mac-and-cheese for lunch. Peter and the Wolf on the clarinet in the afternoon. Meat loaf for dinner, followed by Murder, She Wrote at 8. She has had every conversation multiple times; she's so sick of those particular three meals, she doesn't even touch her plate anymore.
Given the premise, I am required by law to compare Haunter to Groundhog Day. For Lisa, her daily experience is just as interminable as that of Phil Connors. Instead of "I Got You Babe" in the morning, it's the sound of her little brother Robbie (Peter DaCunha) on a walkie-talkie, playfully inviting her down to the basement. Instead of Ned Ryerson, Lisa has ... well, OK, I'll cut the comparison off right there.
In any case, I think two more apt comparisons would be Alice in Wonderland and Twin Peaks. There are some blatant references to the former, from the tiny door she finds hidden in the laundry room, to the miniature house - a facsimile of her own - that she towers over as she tries to figure out exactly what kind of rabbit hole she's tumbled down.
She hears a voice whispering her name through the vents. Dreams and visions provide clues about the house and its history. What follows is, a bit like Natali's Cube, a bit of a puzzle for Lisa to put together, albeit one that keeps pointing in the same malevolent direction - that being the mysterious figure credited only as The Pale Man (Stephen McHattie). This is my house, he insists. You only see what I allow you to see.
It becomes clear quite early on that Lisa and her family are already dead - and have been so for quite some time (their life is from sometime in the mid-'80s) - and that Lisa's consciousness has somehow "awoken" from the permanent repetition of that single day. Now she just has to convince the others in her family of their fate, and - if she can - save the life of another girl, living in the same house, in present day.
It is something of a cool twist to this type of story. In most similarly themed movies, our point of view is that of the person in danger - and the living person, for that matter - and the ghost or spirit is the outside figure ringing the warning bells. The dynamic remains the same in this case, but the point of view is reversed; our time is spent on the other side, and we get only fleeting glimpses of the real danger in question. More important than that is Lisa's unraveling of the mysteries of her life, her death, the house and, of course, The Pale Man.
Despite some of the compelling plot details and narrative structure, Haunter is constantly held back by surprisingly shoddy acting - even from Breslin, a generally strong actress who seems oddly stilted here. The parents are even worse. The one acting standout is McHattie, who could be terrifying and charismatic in his sleep.
But as good as McHattie's performance is, I don't think Natali ultimately knows how to reconcile the character's apparent omnipotence with the requirements of the plot. Natali and screenwriter Matthew Brian King, while trying to make sure we don't notice, basically change the rules on us, allowing Lisa to get farther than she reasonably or logically should, given the absolute power held by The Pale Man over her (and everyone else's) consciousness. There are ways to defend it, but the seeming ease with which Lisa is able to circumvent apparent rules only serves to undermine them - and thus the movie itself.