“HAUNT” (Movie Review)
Sometimes, when telling a story about the afterlife, there’s an inherent understanding that plot and character can fall by the wayside in the name of pure, visceral terror. This particular subgenre is one of the oldest and easiest to execute, and thus there’s only so much in the way of originality and personality one can bring to ghost movies—essentially forcing filmmakers to choose style over substance. But if a horror story devotes itself solely to eliciting fear and subverting expectations, how much or easily can one forgive a lack of novelty or inspiration?
Modern horror is experiencing a renaissance of such films, and whereas mainstream directors such as James Wan and Scott Derrickson have focused on the emotional journeys of families torn apart by evil spirits, filmmakers like Ti West and Vincenzo Natali have explored the greater world of the afterlife on the independent scene. There’s a bit of both approaches dwelling beneath the surface of Mac Carter’s HAUNT (now on VOD and coming to theaters March 7 from IFC Films), bubbling beneath a multitude of other narrative and visual influences. Unfortunately, those themes never truly become cohesive in a script whose most interesting developments only arrive in its closing moments.
There’s much in the way of both tapped and untapped potential in HAUNT, especially in its veering between genuinely creepy seance scenes and clichéd minimalist jump-scares, but none so glaring as in the story itself. Potential red herrings arise left and right, all of which are generally ignored in favor of the central relationship between teenagers Evan (Harrison Gilbertson) and Samantha (Liana Liberato) as they dig deeper into the roots of the former’s haunted house. And when the truth is finally discovered and a crucial revelation could possibly raise the stakes exponentially, the story comes to an abrupt end, improbable in its development and frustrating in its justification.
HAUNT never really concerns itself with originality, and despite an inspired opening sequence, it quickly devolves into predictable territory. Carter does well enough in his direction of Andrew Barrer’s stale script, and while he doesn’t always hit the mark in his guidance of the actors, he at least earns his weight visually, presenting legitimately creepy (if all-too-familiar-looking) ghosts and adding a creepy stillness to the more unsettling reveals. Adam Marsden’s cinematography graces the film with a conservative visual style that complements the ghostly tone, which Carter settles into comfortably and never truly breaks away from. Unfortunately for gorehounds, conservative is also descriptive of HAUNT’s horror content; the movie never delivers anything substantial in the way of blood and guts.
What will likely make or break the film with audiences is the lead performances; while the supporting turns range from noncommitted to over-the-top, the two young stars find that happy medium. Despite trying her all, Ione Skye never feels fully fleshed out as the matriarch of the house; perhaps she was hampered by an underwritten and all-too-conventional character, but nevertheless, there’s a lack of emotion to her delivery that deprives the film of much-needed energy and chemistry. On the other side of the coin, Jacki Weaver perhaps goes a little too far with her portrayal of the house’s secret-harboring former owner, abandoning nuance and finesse in favor of sinister undertones and confounding motivations, much of which are at the center of that anticlimactic ending. Had the film solely focused on Gilbertson and Liberato—and with perhaps a rewrite on the underutilized twist late in the third act—there’s a chance HAUNT could have been an excellent ghost story with a bittersweet romance at its core. Instead, the devotion to extraneous characters and loose ends ends only in complication and confusion.
HAUNT is not a failure by any means—it is watchable and sometimes even earns legitimate dread—but it is quite disappointing given the promise of its promise. In the end, it doesn’t succeed at being what a ghost story needs to be at its core: scary. Despite a cast who try their hardest with mixed results and a director with a definite eye for visual storytelling, HAUNT never truly terrifies the audience, and as such, no inspired artistic contribution can be championed as a genre-specific saving grace.