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by Jay Seaver

"No reason to give up on the ghost."
4 stars

"Haunter" is the kind of horror movie that is in many ways so well-built that it almost gets in its own way when someone sees it, likes it, and wants to recommend it: The film has a hook that does its job of intriguing an audience as well as one might hope, but one of its early delights is just how nicely it reveals what's going on. It's good enough to not just be a gimmick movie, though, but quite the nifty ghost story.

It's a Sunday night in mid-1980s Ontario, the day before Lisa Johnson's sixteenth birthday, and Lisa (Abigail Breslin) has just started to realize that this has been the case for quite a while: Every day is a repetition of the one before, from her brother Robbie (Peter DaCunha) playing Pac-Man to her father Bruce (Peter Outerbridge) struggling to fix the car and her mother Carol (Michelle Nolden) asking about clothes missing from the laundry. The phone is out and the house is shrouded in fog, and when the routine breaks one day, it's so that a creepy-looking man (Stephen McHattie) can ask Lisa how long she's been awake and warn her not to rock the boat.

The basics of what's going on is pretty clear, if only from the name of the movie and how malicious poltergeists have by and large fallen out of favor compared to unknowing emotional scars on a location, but director Vincenzo Natali and writer Brian King let the movie get to roughly the half-hour mark before spelling it out. Both the lead to and follow from that moment are filled with nuggets that build the story and a mythology that seems reasonably common-sensical compared to many supernatural stories. It's a nice set-up, with just enough scale and complication to give Lisa something to worry about beside herself, and while the story gets a bit messy toward the end, it seldom falls into the trap many horror movies do where the scares seem randomly assembled. There is at least an emotional foundation to what's going on.

Much of the responsibility for creating that emotional foundation rests on young Abigail Breslin's shoulders, and she is more than up to the task. Lisa is, paranormal material aside, a teen character strong enough to carry a good coming of age movie, to the point where it would make sense if her adolescence was why she was the one to wake up. That's why the first half of the movie feels so genuine and grounded; there's nothing particularly horror-centric about how Breslin shows Lisa as a combination of angry and scared there, selling complete sincerity when a lot of other movies might go for irony in her self-awareness. What's especially great, though, is how well she plays the reluctant hero; Breslin absolutely makes Lisa a character the audience can get behind, gathering just the right amount of strength in every scene as the movie rolls toward its climax.

As much as Haunter is Breslin's movie, having Stephen McHattie to play against her does not hurt at all. McHattie has the sort of powerful voice and imposing build to play monster or mentor well, and he's almost too forceful here, building his character up as a lot for Lisa to overcome. Still, that energy is well-appreciated; when he pops up on screen, there's never any doubt that there's real trouble around. The rest of the cast isn't bad, either; Michelle Nolden and Peter Outerbridge play up parental obliviousness with their stuck-in-a-loop characters without making them parodically bland, which lets things get interesting when something is different. Natali regular (and genre TV stalwart) David Hewlett is a strong addition when he arrives midway through.

Natali has some interesting things to do with this cast, as well as the setting; for all that the story seldom if ever leaves this house, there are still plenty of chances to switch things out to keep things interesting and unnerving. He stumbles in a few places - there's one sequence near the end that feels like it should be rousing but instead feels mostly awkward - but that's relatively rare. Most of the movie is enjoyable, steadily escalating creepiness with very little need to resort to the gross-out.

There is some of that - decaying corpses can make for a heck of an exclamation point on certain scenes, after all. And while "Haunter"'s gimmick may not be entirely unique, part of the fun here is that the movie is less about setting up the twist than running with it to tell a spooky story with a memorable heroine.

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originally posted: 10/29/13 10:49:01
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/04/16 brian Clever inside-out haunting film looks great but clunks too hard to transcend its genre. 4 stars
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  DVD: 11-Feb-2014



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