In one of the stranger cases of a film being unceremoniously dumped this year, none of us here were even aware that Haunter was getting a theatrical release until Wednesday night of this week; one business day before it appears on local screens for a week long run of one showing a day. (It also hits VOD in Canada today, as well.) What makes the dumping all the more curious before watching the film is how it’s Canadian filmmaker Vincenzo Natali’s follow-up to his well received cross-border success Splice. Although, after having watched the film it makes perfect sense why the release is unceremonious. It’s an overlong, far too convoluted ghost story with low production value and a great deal of style trying to compensate for a lack of substance.
Abigail Breslin stars as Lisa, a teenager who was murdered alongside her family sometime in the mid-1980s and is now forced to relive the day before her death over and over again in a Groundhog Day-like fashion. Fed up reliving the same memories over and over again, Lisa begins to investigate voices she begins to hear from the beyond. Her investigating begins to change the routine, uncovers facts previously unknown, and makes known multiple planes of existence where other girls who lived in her house suffer the same horrible fate. It’s all tied to a mysterious stranger (Stephen McHattie) who acts as a sort of puppet master over numerous different sets of ghosts in the same space at the same time.
There so precious little substance to screenwriter Brian King’s work that there’s not much else Natali can do outside of bare bones genre hackwork (creaky doors, spooky voices, ominous looking basements, uncomfortable close-ups, claustrophobic spaces, occasional strobe effects). While the idea of a world containing multiple astral planes full of tortured souls all wronged by the same person sounds good in theory, the film can never settle on any sense of internal logic. Things just happen because narratively they would make perfect sense for them to happen. It’s all too convenient.
But worse than the convenience is how needlessly slow the film is. It’s a full thirty minutes before the initial looping of a single day even progresses beyond the exact same thing happening over and over again. Then it takes another thirty minutes after that for any semblance of a plot to kick in once it becomes apparent that there might be someone living in the house in modern times that could be in danger (which is handled as nonsensically as possible). By that point, the ultimate point has to be asked: if all the characters are already dead, then why drag things out with jump scares? We know these characters are dead and that they aren’t getting any deader. This isn’t even a spoiler since this is all made known within the first ten minutes before Natali and company spend another 90 minutes spinning their wheels trying to find something that works. There are almost no discernible stakes for anything that happens here.
It’s also amateurishly cheap in terms of production design. It’s a one set film where hardly anything changes even if the time periods are different. The CGI is as low rent as one is likely to see, and the less said about parts of the climax that are designed to have that “old timey Nickelodeon” look to them the better. While some movies are often said to be “found in the edit,” this looks like it was slapped together in Final Cut Pro with some After Effects in about three non-consecutive hours over a weekend. Natali’s famously microbudgeted Cube still looks lightyears better than anything seen here.
Yet, despite all its problems, it seems like Natali at least tried to make something work here. His sense of what should be suspenseful hasn’t been diminished, but there’s just nothing he can do to make any of this material work. Ditto Breslin, who’s actually very good, but she still can’t carry this mess all on her own. If anything, Haunter proves that Breslin and Natali both deserve way better than they are given here.
Haunter is a lengthy trail of breadcrumbs that ultimately aren’t worth following. There’s so much atmosphere here that it’s as thick as the all encompassing fog outside Lisa’s house. The style was probably originally designed to add an air of mystery, but all it does is cover up the emptiness of the story. It fills a void, but the film still operates in a vacuum. It’s a curious entry in the resumes of both its star and director that will soon be forgotten. That’s probably for the best.