Haunter

Seen at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival.

Vincenzo Natali’s Haunter is kind of like Insidious, if that film had been more interested in the conceptual design of its ghostly universe than in big jolts and baroque atmosphere. A nifty little reverse-ghost story, it is very much true to the form of the brilliant Canadian director of Cube, Cypher, and Splice: impeccably constructed, tightly focused, and fascinated with the details of its Twilight Zone-ish conceit.

My principal frustration with ghost stories and haunted house flicks tends to be a lack of rules to be followed: the ghosts are invariably all-purpose supernatural scare machines, able to do whatever (but no more than) the director requires to engineer his scares and atmospheric set pieces. The action then turns arbitrary: anything can happen at any time, and the heroes’ success or failure against their undead tormentors is at the whim of the movie.

Haunter solves this problem in spades. You want rules, you got rules — lots of them, set up in a complicated and impressively-engineered framework by screenwriter Brian King (Cypher). The story concerns a teenage girl (Abigail Breslin) who, as the film begins, has recently realized that she and her family are reliving the same boring day over and over again, stuck in a fog-shrouded house that none of them can leave. She can hear faint noises coming from the basement. Her parents and brother are oblivious. What’s happened? The answer involves a string of decades-old murders, time travel, and a rigidly-enforced boundary between the living and the dead.

The film is gentle and bloodless, a deliberate choice by Natali after the gruesome body horror of Splice. The guy knows how to do spooky with a PG-13 rating, though, and Haunter can also be in-your-bones unsettling, aided by a seriously discomfiting performance by veteran character actor Stephen McHattie as a character called the Pale Man. But the biggest pleasures here come from how thought-through and rigorous this weird little universe is; how Natali and King commit fully to their story and follow it through to a satisfying conclusion that doesn’t cheat or take shortcuts, and that manages to resolve the plot while at the same time deepening the mystery at its center. (It also reprises a particular image that recurs in several of Natali’s films, and epitomizes his work.) I would have expected nothing less from the most cerebral and consistently fascinating director working in genre films today.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

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Score: C+

10 Years

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Score: B-

The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek Cianfrance, 2013

Score: B+

Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine, 2013

Score: C

Beautiful Creatures

Richard LaGravanese, 2013

Score: B-

The Window

Ted Tetzlaff, 1949

Score: B+

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Score: B

Street of Chance

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Score: C

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