One of Haunt‘s most endearing qualities surrounds a strong self-aware mindset that recognizes all paranormal stories typically start off the same way, yet by confessing such little deviation in the setup, writer Andrew Barrer achieves an open honesty that promotes a focused, well established delivery. The very first moments of Mac Carter’s first directorial feature admit that all ghost stories start with a house, and looking back on any lengthy list of supernatural horror films confirms such a notion. Family moves into house, family discovers a long-standing curse, family starts to experience other-worldly occurrences – horror ensues. Rinse and repeat, right? Correct – but if executed properly, who cares?
Many years ago there lived a family plagued by misfortune. Moving into a new, lavish house, the Morello family attempted to start anew, but instead found tragedy around every corner. As their children died one by one, Franklin (Carl Hadra) and Janet (Jackie Weaver) Morello fought grief until only Janet was left alive, moving away from her nightmare home. After some years pass, the Asher family moves into the old Morello establishment, and it’s not long before son Evan (Harrison Gilbertson) begins having paranormal visions of his own. Teaming up with an abused neighbor named Sam (Liana Liberato), the two teens explore the possibility of communicating with the dead, looking for a ghostly explanation. Can Evan and Sam solve their spooky problem before it’s too late?
Haunt is an exercise in execution as opposed to a test-run of boundary pushing material, as the Asher family are forced to fight a malicious ghoul for reasons previously buried – only to have one family member fiddle with the unknown and provoke a full-out haunting. An ominous narration provided by Jacki Weaver (Stoker/Silver Linings Playbook) leads us through yet another ghost story of lies, deceit, and cursed real estate, but as Weaver addresses what’s established as “just another ghost story,” Mac Carter is freed from certain grandiose expectations. No longer does our visionary director have to surprise us or shock us with never before seen content, instead he can harness his focused energy into mini blasts of bone-chilling terror – which Mac Carter absolutely accomplishes, based on my clenched fists and white knuckles.
Ghost stories are nothing without a horrifying apparition, looming about only to strike fear through swift jump scares, and Haunt succeeds in making an evil specter worthy of invading a sweaty-palmed nightmare or two. Brought upon by an unsavory relationship, a true sense of terror and dread surrounds a being who strikes fear based on visual appearance alone, but the vile haunter also possesses a playful, taunting personality that amplifyies levels of horror above the typical fuzzy static. Her thin, deteriorating face and sadistic smirk haven’t been easy to shake, as part of me expects those dead, black eyes to be starring directly into my soul around every corner I turn.
Atmosphere is everything when ghosts are involved, because so many scares depend on long-drawn tension and an abundant sense of unrest. Anyone can shoot a scene where ghosts come an go as lights flicker on and off, but it takes much more panache to skillfully move paranormal terrors about a house in real time. Haunt isn’t completely saved from typical genre filmmaking, like the tired “ghost in the mirror” trick, but director Mac Carter is able to capture every creepy, skin-crawling inch of the Asher house. As any diehard horror fan knows, there’s something inherently eery about creeky old houses full of finished wood and brick attic walls. But once Carter starts establishing the presence of our ghost, which involves diluted flashbacks and quickly shifting lights, dread overtakes us.
Aided by cinematography that frames every horrifying image with a stylistically appeasing bit of antique, Gothic horror, Haunt quickly becomes one of the tighter, scarier, and more enjoyable paranormal horror films in recent memory. Ghosts stories are meant to be scary, but an over-saturated market has churned out countless snoozers like The Haunting In Connecticut 2: Ghosts Of Georgia that are content with simply rehashing campfire stories of old – something Mac Carter and Andrew Barrer do with their own inviting vision. Credit Harrison Gilbertson and Liana Liberato for leading an energetically charged paranormal movie that never disappoints, but without two steadfast hands guiding our “adventurous” protagonists like devious puppet masters, Haunt quickly would have become nothing but another genre copy with a ghost, a story, and absolutely no intrigue. Crises averted, horror fans!