Ghosts aren’t all bad. Some of the time, they’re just depressed, and you would be too if you had to float around for the rest of whatever. There’s monotony, but the desire to reach out, whether you’re alive or dead, remains. In haunted house movies with a benevolent/misunderstood specter, that need for connection becomes essential, and Vincenzo Natali‘s Haunter uses an intriguing premise to show ghosts reaching out across the ether to either save or condemn. Unfortunately, a slow start eventually dooms the film as the mystery overshadows the characters, and what should be a tense, puzzling picture becomes a convoluted and corny mess.
Lisa (Abigail Breslin) knows she and her family are deceased, but she’s the only one who realizes they’ve been living the same day in 1985, the day before her 16th birthday, over and over again. At first, the experience bores her, but strange occurrences begin leading Lisa to uncover the mystery of why she’s aware of her death, why she’s stuck on the same day, and that there’s more a stake then her purgatory. As the story unfolds, Lisa must reach across time and existence to prevent further tragedy.
Part of the power of mystery is fascination, and Haunter begins with disinterest. The story can’t reveal the cause of Lisa’s death, but it could at least let us see her “awakening” rather than having us jump in at the middle of her begrudging acceptance of the situation. That lack of energy weakens the story substantially since we can be intrigued by the mystery, but never invested in the character. We want to feel her pain, but there’s no room for melancholy or regret. Lisa’s desperation keeps her moving, and yet the character is constantly dwarfed by the process of her investigation.
I commend screenwriter Brian King on his layered script. Reaching across the living/dead divide from the ghost’s perspective isn’t new, but it feels fresh because the film is operating so heavily from Lisa’s side. Furthermore, there’s more than one haunting, more than one connection, and while some ghosts aren’t so bad, some are rather nasty, so there’s a constant threat. However, these elements never quite coalesce because the story gets bogged down in the how and why rather than the emotions that should come from this haunting. The structure is further damaged by Natali’s pacing, which feels constrained by taking Lisa’s investigation step-by-step rather than spending more time with her emotional state. There are strong moments where she breaks down, but the film rarely finds the time to invest in her connection with her family, so when those moments do come along, they feel forced and secondary.
There’s so much room for Haunter to go interesting places both thematically and narratively. At the outset, Lisa’s lethargic tone taps into the nature of being an indifferent teenager. She feels disconnected from her family, her experiences are mundane, and she can’t wait to grow up. But when the mystery takes precedence, these themes get left behind because she’s too busy trying to put together the pieces of her predicament. Furthermore, as the mystery is revealed, the surprise doesn’t feel worthy of the effort that went into constructing it.
Haunter flips the haunted house script for both good and ill. Watching multiple levels of the haunting is captivating up to a point, and there are nice little moments like Lisa using a Ouija board to reach across the divide. Haunted house stories are inherently emotional, but Natali surprisingly loses that aspect. The sense of loss and loneliness rarely creeps in, and Natali has proven in the past with Splice that he cares as much about a mystery (like in his film Cube) as the characters. But with Haunter there’s far more devotion to exploring the house rather than taking the time to understand those who haunt it.
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