It’s always a murky, foggy day in the fear-driven “Haunter,” the exciting feature from Canadian director Vincenzo Natali (“Cube“) and American writer Brian King, no strangers to the otherworld genres (horror, supernatural, thrillers) that their like minds embrace (or to each other, for that matter, having teamed on 2002’s “Cypher,” a corporate scifi thriller starring Lucy Lui and Jeremy Northam).
In their new film, the spookiness starts early, as some butterflies flutter about ghastly specimen jars under the opening credits. Soon you’re whisked from the edge of nocturnal fantasy, as is exasperated teenager Lisa Johnson (Abigail Breslin), awakening to share her most unfortunately tedious daily routine. The bright crackle of her brother Robbie (Peter DaCunha)’s voice on a walkie talkie signals the dawn of another Sunday adventure with his imaginary friend Edgar, although there’s no morning sun to be found outside her bedroom window.
Downstairs, mom Carol (Michelle Norden) is cooking pancakes in the kitchen and asks her daughter to do the laundry, despite the child’s resigned insistence she had done it yesterday. Dad Bruce (Peter Outerbridge) is out in the garage, trying to fix the family’s broken car. For each comment from her parents or sibling, Lisa exudes a bored indifference. Been there, done that.
In Lisa’s mind, no matter what anyone does, things will never change. Clothes will always go missing from the laundry. Lisa always will be a whiz at Rubik’s Cube. She knows there’s Mac and Cheese for lunch. Meatloaf for dinner. The foursome gather nightly at 8 PM to watch same episode of “Murder She Wrote.” And Lisa never gets to celebrate her 16th birthday. “Nope, that’s tomorrow,” she informs her parents with a resigned huff. “Never comes.”
Yeah, she’s suffering from repeating day syndrome, although Bill Murray’s not here to commiserate or make her laugh. With borrowings from “Groundhog Day” and dashes from “Alice in Wonderland, “American Horror Story” and “Ghost,” but with some slight, and occasionally predictable, twists on the old haunted house tale, it becomes evident that something’s amiss in the Johnson home.
They’re all unsettled ghosts caught in a repeating suburban landscape.
King’s complex script reveals pieces of the we’re-ghosts-and-we’re-scared-shitless story as the family’s unearthly reality clicks in. Their growing acceptance of this “condition” changes the daily rhythm as the film progresses–enough that they each eventually realize their common foe, the sinister Pale Man (played with chilling malevolence by Stephen McHattie), a killer so evil that he continues to murder well beyond his own death, trapping souls in perpetual agony. Can mom, dad, and little brother come to grips with who/what they are? Serial murders have surrounded their home, be it during the Johnson’s brief stay in the 1980s, or decades earlier, or, with a chilling overlap with the current, living, occupants. That family’s daughter, Olivia (Eleanor Zichy–adequate in her feature debut) will provide a key to help unravel the house’s troubled history.
Breslin has been a veteran thespian since debuting as Mel Gibson’s daughter in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002’s creep-out “Signs” and rode herself into our hearts with a brilliant, Oscar-nominated performance in “Little Miss Sunshine” eight (gulp!) years ago. Breslin, now 17, is center stage here in a genre she adores, ranking Natali’s 2010 genetics-go-awry flick “Splice” (which I didn’t like in the least) among her fave horror films (“It’s good, weird, and amazing!”). In “Haunter,” she’s in nearly every scene and carries herself well as the moody, porcelain-faced, troubled-brow teen.
Natali’s direction is neat and clean, and I especially admired the somber mood and the gotta-smile time-stamp clues (Lisa’s goth Siouxsie and the Banshees sweatshirt, the David Bowie poster adorning her wall, PAC-Man!, and family movies on long-deceased Beta VHS format) that point the viewer to the film’s time frame of 1985. He also provides enough scare moments while compressing the setting to just the family home and its encompassing fog and leafless trees. Slamming doors, visceral sound and visual effects, haunting shadows and whispers emanating from the old heating vents provide the requisite shocks and goosebumps.
“Haunter” isn’t an extraordinary ghost tale, but it’s got a nice lyrical blend of fear, gloom, and unsettling evil moments.