Haunter could have been an ugly little blemish on Abigail Breslin’s resume, but instead she turns it into a chance to prove herself, solidifying that she’s got the acting chops to take a predictable narrative, poor supporting performances and loads of familiar camera tricks and make them watchable.
The year is 1985 and it’s the day before Lisa’s (Breslin) 16th birthday. She wakes up, eats pancakes, does the laundry, has macaroni and cheese for lunch, plays her clarinet and indulges in a meatloaf dinner with her mother (Michelle Nolden), father (Peter Outerbridge), and little brother Robbie (Peter DaCunha). Afterwards, they watch TV, Lisa goes to bed, and then she wakes up does the whole routine all over again. No, Lisa isn’t excessively schedule oriented; she’s trapped, forced to live a single day over and over again. Unable to convince her parents that there’s something seriously wrong going on, Lisa takes matters into her own hands and does a little digging in order to find out why they’re trapped in that one day and how to get out.
Haunter isn’t a bad movie, but it’s barely adequate. There are signs of inspired characters, clever ideas, and unique execution techniques, but they’re all curtailed by wooden performances, a predictable narrative, and loads of very familiar visuals.
The intimacy of the scenario is highly appealing. It’s a nice, normal family of four, indulging in seemingly normal daily activities. It’s easy to connect. But then, when Lisa goes back to start and you come to realize that something is seriously wrong here, it turns that relatable, comfortable world on its head and the reveal is very effective. However, with each go-around, the situation becomes more tedious, less interesting, and rather silly.
Haunter is a one-note experience and the lack of highs and lows makes it easy for key plot points to pass right by. In fact, there’s one major revelation that changes the entire course of the film and should mark a profound emotional beat for Lisa, but we get nothing.
However, it doesn’t seem as though Breslin is at fault for the deficit. In fact, her work is the main reason that Haunter is enjoyable at all. At the start, there’s so little chemistry between Breslin and the other family members that you’ll wonder whether or not her character was recently adopted. Again, it’s not Breslin’s fault. She comes across as incredibly natural, whereas Outerbridge, Nolden, and DaCunha deliver tacky infomercial versions of the quintessential American family. They’re not real people and they feel like robots.
Nolden struts around in an apron and constantly puts food on the table, Outerbridge is forever fixing his car engine, and DaCunha will make your blood boil every time he goes into cutesy mode to charm his mother into giving him two scoops of ice cream. The repetition does make sense, but the characters should still feel like real people and they don’t, not the first time, not the fifth, and not even when external forces come into play and alter the routine.
Fortunately, Breslin has no trouble carrying the film on her own because not only is she dealing with weak supporting characters, but terrible dialogue, poor production design, and uninspired direction, too. Banter between characters is loaded with unintentional laughs, like when Outerbridge throws a temper tantrum over his spark plugs and then there’s the overuse of the term “busy Betty.” (It is a “busy body,” right? Or is “busy Betty” an 80’s phrase that I missed out on?)
In general, the look of the interior of the house serves its purpose, but there’s absolutely nothing special about it. Every inch of the house is exactly what you’d expect. However, the exterior and that oppressive fog effect are absolutely atrocious. Yes, it could make sense to have an exceptionally heavy amount of fog considering where the narrative goes, but it’s introduced so early in the film that the cartoonish look functions as blatant foreshadowing rather than building a sense of dread. The house itself doesn’t feel quite real either. It’s almost as if the entire exterior was created digitally in post-production.
Dragging all of these elements down further is the fact that Vincenzo Natali seems to have lost his flare and sense of originality. Haunter is drowning in cliché genre camera tricks. There are so many extreme close-ups on eyes that you could make a great drinking game with the overused visual. Natali also has a habit of using far too many pushes and pulls, and all right when you’d expect them, making his intentions far to obvious for the technique to have the appropriate effect.
Fortunately, Breslin pulls through and delivers a performance that’s engaging enough to both walk you through the narrative and even leave you somewhat satisfied in the end. It isn’t smart enough to make you think much after the credits roll and it isn’t scary enough to keep you up at night, but Haunter is successful enough to make for a harmless, lazy day DVD/VOD watch.
Haunter is a step down for director Vincenzo Natali, but yet another step up for Abigail Breslin, who continues to prove herself as a leading lady, commanding attention with such force that you might just be able to look past the underdeveloped narrative and laughably over-the-top supporting performances.