Director: Vincenzo Natali
Stars: Abigail Breslin, Stephen McHattie, Peter Outerbridge, Michelle Nolden, David Hewlett
Running time: 97 minutes
Vincenzo Natali does what every filmmaker should do: He always takes big creative risks. In his 1997 debut, Cube, the American-Canadian director brought a little Franz Kafka into violent science fiction; 12 years later, he reinvented the Frankenstein mythos with the perverse creature feature Splice. For Natali, genre movies provide a platform for rich, intelligent, and ambitious ideas, and he applies that philosophy to his latest film, Haunter (which had its world premiere last night at SXSW). This time, he's left the science behind in favor of a supernatural backdrop: the haunted house.
Written by Brian King, Haunter is a twisty, brain-warping take on domesticated ghosts from the point-of-view of an actual spirit. In that way, it has a lot in common with The Others, except here the viewer knows from the first frame that the protagonist, Lisa (Abigail Breslin, who plays front-and-center terrifically), is already dead, as are her parents and little brother. Thing is, they don't realize that, a la Groundhog Day, they've been endlessly repeating the exact same day—more specifically, the day before Lisa's 16th birthday. There's always macaroni-and-cheese for lunch, meatloaf for dinner, Murder She Wrote to watch before bedtime, and some clarinet practice for Lisa. But then, one day, little details about the routine changes, and as Lisa slowly figures out why, Haunter quickly enters a rabbit hole of nightmarish horror, dreamlike visuals, and time-leaps.
To give anything else about Haunter away would be criminal, since the film will work best for those who know little beyond what I've just described. It's not a spoiler, however, to say that Natali's unnerving film is dealing with some very challenging material, both of the thematic (be warned, little ones die just as graphically as adults) and narrative varieties. King's script demands a great deal from viewers, and those watching Haunter casually will probably feel bewildered as the film enters its no-holds-barred finale, triggered by a standout sequence in which Natali frames the house as a cigarette-burned reel come to life, complete with jerky character motions, as if they're walking on a jumping turntable.
The haunted house movie is one of the horror genre's oldest staples, and it's been done so much to death that Marlon Wayans recently made a spoof about the current wave of ghost-home flicks. Throughout Haunter, though, Natali maintains a palpable sense of far-reaching invention that, most impressive of all, holds up as the film ends and you start piecing everything together that happened in an effort to find any possible holes. This house is built on a sturdy foundation, its bricks comprised of original ideas, repurposed elements from classics like The Shining, and startling imagery.