Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Haunter: One of the Scary Season’s Best

Imagine watching the same episode of Murder She Wrote over and over again.  If that isn’t Hell, it is probably close enough.  Maybe a Columbo wouldn’t be so bad, but Lisa Johnson’s parents have pretty vanilla tastes.  Do not judge them too harshly for being stuck in the 1980’s, because they are sort of dead. Recovering awareness of their eternally looping existence, Johnson will reach out to other girls like her in hopes of breaking a pernicious supernatural cycle of terror in Vincenzo Natali’s Haunter (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

The Johnson family was murdered in 1986.  Every day since, they relive that fateful Sunday, unaware of their paranormal condition.  At least they still have a cool president.  Somehow, their daughter has awakened to some extent.  Cognizant of the wicked déjà vu happening, she starts having what might be described as ghostly experiences.  Soon she suspects other families are trapped in a similar stasis within the house, but in different time periods.  Eventually, she will make contact with teen-aged girls in both the past and the future, but her consciousness does not go unnoticed.

Haunter is easily one of the best horror films of this Halloween season.  Natali maintains an overwhelming vibe of creeping dread, while Brian King’s screenplay ranges into surreal, mind-bending territory.  The closest comparison film would probably the metaphysical horror of H.P. Mendoza’s ambitious indie I Am a Ghost, but Haunter has a more mainstream Nightmare on Elm Street dimension to it.

Regardless, Haunter is the freshest horror outing since probably Mendoza’s film.  It delivers about a half dozen game-changing twists and they each work surprisingly well. There is no padding in King’s script.  Everything happens for a purpose.  Perhaps most importantly, it keeps viewers on edge from start to finish.

As Johnson, Abigail Breslin is on-screen front-and-center more or less the entire time, so the film largely depends on her.  Fortunately she is convincingly smart, resilient, and increasingly freaked out as the young protagonist.  Stephen McHattie also brings a fittingly severe presence as the mysterious figure simply billed as the “Pale Man.”  However, if there is one misstep in Haunter it comes in showing too much of him.  More mystery is always better.

Frankly, this is a perfect example of the direction more indie genre films ought to take.  There is hardly any gore or special effects to speak of in Haunter, yet it completely gets under your skin.  Smart and tightly focused, Haunter is easily the horror movie pick of the month.  Highly recommended for fans, it opens Friday (10/18) at New York’s IFC Center.