It’s tough when you can’t fall in love with a movie you admire but, unfortunately, director Vincenzo Natali (the excellent Splice) is unable to bring his usual flair to the heavily uneven Haunter. After getting easily hooked into the film via an incredibly interesting first act, I found myself losing more and more interest as the movie began to throw its own rules out the window.
Abigail Breslin is excellent as Lisa, a mopey new-wave teen who also happens to be dead and stuck in 1986. Her whole family is dead too, but she’s the only one who’s actually aware of their predicament. Thus, her family enacts the same routine every day and treats her as if she’s acting out when she tries to tell them that she’s tired of having meatloaf for the thousandth day in a row. It’s an interesting concept, The Others meets Groundhog Day. Some truly special stuff comes out of this early on as Natali and screenwriter Brian King nicely develop their world. There’s a moment about halfway though when Lisa’s father suddenly starts smoking at dinner – not part of his normal routine – that signals the onset of what I assumed would be a truly remarkable second half.
Sadly, the remarkable version never shows up. Instead, Haunter disappears down a convoluted rabbit hole once Lisa’s objective – to save the family living in the 2013 version of their house – becomes clear. There’s very little that works after this point. We never get to know the family Lisa’s trying to save well enough (or at all, really) to become truly invested. It’s a horror movie, so when you place the innocent and anonymous in peril the audience doesn’t really care if they die or not. But Haunter isn’t interested in providing that type of investment. The film becomes obsessed with the ins and outs of ghost time travel (that’s a thing here) and, much like its’ protagonists, disappears into a virtual limbo.
Stephen McHattie (Pontypool) is effectively creepy as the film’s villain, but the energy around his motives and actions is so laconic and thinly drawn that his efforts are effectively neutered. An evil lacking any sort of definition, he’s sort of reduced to mugging for the camera by the end. Additionally, in what seems like a bid to appeal to younger teens and a PG-13 rating, the film lacks any punch whatsoever. Brightly lit with people learning important life (or death, I suppose) lessons, I was fairly shocked by the gummy toothlessness of its ending.
Haunter isn’t a bad film, and I certainly commend it for trying something new, I just wish it hadn’t gone in the direction it did. It starts with the makings of a modest miracle, but eventually uses up exactly as much goodwill as it earns. Hopefully it just serves as the ultimate palate cleanser (and expectation diminisher) before Natali returns back to better waters.