“HAUNTER” (Movie Review)
Vincenzo Natali, the Canadian director whose previous films like CUBE and SPLICE have plumbed the horrors of hard science, takes a successful turn toward the ghostly with HAUNTER.
While Chloë Grace Moretz goes through all kinds of domestic hell in CARRIE, another rising young actress, Abigail Breslin, undergoes quieter horrors at home here. HAUNTER (in select theaters and on VOD today from IFC Films) casts ZOMBIELAND’s Little Rock as Lisa, a teenager who wakes up to what seems to be a typical day—her little brother bugging her, her mother giving her grief—and though the movie never comes out and defines the time, a rotary phone on the wall, Ronald Reagan on TV and Lisa’s Siouxsie and the Banshees T-shirt make it clear we’re sometime in the mid-’80s. Then the day starts to repeat itself, GROUNDHOG DAY-style, and Lisa slowly cottons to the fact that something’s not quite right. Another clue: the heavy fog keeping everyone bound inside the house.
HAUNTER’s screenplay, by Brian King, sets up a puzzle for both Lisa and the audience to solve, and King and Natali do a smart job of doling out clues and visual signs of what’s really going on in her house. It’s not giving anything away to reveal that Lisa and her family are ghosts, fated to endlessly replay the events of that specific day, and the drama and horror result from Lisa’s attempts to find out why and interrupt the cycle. Especially shivery is a figure who shows up to stop her: a TV repair guy (credited as “The Pale Man”) who lets Lisa know in no uncertain terms that she’s in big trouble if she continues meddling in the supernatural scheme of things. He’s played by the dependable Stephen McHattie in one of his creepiest roles yet, providing a solid center for the ethereal ideas swirling through HAUNTER.
There are echoes here of everything from POLTERGEIST to INSIDIOUS—as in the latter, Jon Joffin’s cinematography does a lot with a low-tech combination of mist and darkness—but HAUNTER successfully stands as its own film. Breslin is terrific, very sympathetically navigating through a scenario that takes her into not only hidden corners of her house (particularly a secret cellar) but also into different decades as well. It is here that the story’s endgame becomes apparent, as Lisa finds herself in not only the home but evidently the person of another teenager, Olivia (Eleanor Zichy), for whom Lisa’s horrific history threatens to repeat itself.
King’s script is remarkably ambitious even for a subgenre that often bends and travels through time, and while there are moments where connections aren’t quite made and narrative shortcuts are employed, in large part Natali and King keep the twists and revelations coming logically and coherently, as pieces of the past (and future) fall into place and odd behavior among Lisa’s family (her brother’s imaginary friend, her dad’s increasingly violent attitude) is explained. Peter Outerbridge and Michelle Nolden as her parents and Peter DaCunha as her bro gracefully maintain their repetitive actions and modulate the variations thereof, and it’s nice to see Canadian genre perennial David Hewlett (from PIN, SPLICE and many others) turn up as Olivia’s father.
As most ghost stories do, HAUNTER winds up becoming a murder mystery as well, and its creators carry off the combination smoothly and pay off both sets of expectations satisfyingly. There are a few good jolts along the way, though for the most part, HAUNTER aims and succeeds at keeping you caught up in its atmosphere and guessing, along with poor Lisa, about what will happen next and why.