While his science fiction films Cube and Splice contained many elements of horror, this is director Vincenzo Natali’s first overt step into that genre, though like his previous works the story, scripted by Brian King who also wrote Cypher, Natali’s 2002 followup to Cube, Haunter is another film where investigation and discovery are the primary aspects, the lead character using her intelligence to solve the nightmarish riddle her life has become.
Academy Award nominated former Little Miss Sunshine Abigail Breslin is Lisa, who wakes every day in her bedroom adorned with posters of The Smiths, The Cure, Joy Division, Bauhaus and David Bowie, who wears her Siouxsie and the Banshees t-shirt as she goes downstairs to face another day with her parents and younger brother Robbie, her mother asking her what she wants to do for her birthday tomorrow and reminding her to do the laundry on cold so as not to wear out the clothes.
“I don’t think it’s possible for our clothes to wear out. Ever,” Lisa responds, the only person in the house who perceives the pattern they are repeating and is actively fighting it. Laying its cards on the table within the first ten minutes, the audience quickly pick up on what Lisa has realised but her family are either unable to see or are in denial about, that they are reliving the same day over and over.
“We’re stuck in this house and none of us are ever going to leave,” we are told. “There is no school, there is no work. Tomorrow never comes.” It’s a setup that has been done many times before, from Groundhog Day to Monday on The X Files and Cause and Effect on Star Trek The Next Generation, but here the mood is of a mundane visit to The Twilight Zone rather than the weirdness of Sapphire and Steel, with macaroni cheese for lunch and meatloaf and Murder, She Wrote every evening.
Perhaps too reminiscent of Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others with the isolated fogbound house, Haunter makes no attempt to conceal the reversal of the traditional haunted house scenario, instead focusing on Lisa’s attempts to escape from the house, with or without her family, or failing that make contact with someone beyond the impenetrable blanket which cuts them off from the world.
While the opening titles are beautiful, butterflies and children trapped in killing jars, they telegraph too much of what is to come, and woefully generic effects add to the feel of cheapness, the house shifted back in time effective through the way it is utilised even though it resembles little more than a graphic filter application over the picture.
Unable to break free of the feel of a studio bound TV movie, trapped in the fog itself, the characters unravelling the pieces slower than the viewer, Natili remains an inventive director, doing his best with the limitations of the script despite working with a much reduced budget for his first feature in four years since the poorly performing and generally misunderstood Splice.
Lisa may dress in black, but she wears an ankh and is haloed by light, symbols of life, and when a break in the pattern occurs it is as disturbing as the pattern itself, as though something unexplainable is out of control. As horrors with teenage leads go, the dependable Breslin is calm and resourceful rather than the objectionable whiner she would be were she a character in a found footage movie, though Pontypool’s Stephen McHattie, incapable of a poor performance, is wasted as a generic villain role who principally jumps out of dark corners.