This is not the average ghost story. For one, today’s cinema is grotesquely lacking in ghost stories with diverse plot and the complexities of character. Many are so saturated with effects and cheap scares that they lack actual substance. The second reason Haunter (2013) functions has an innovative film within the haunted-house scope is that the house is in fact haunted, but it is haunted by the living, not the dead.
Lisa (Abigail Breslin of Little Miss Sunshine and The Call) is a rebellious, indifferent teenager living with her parents and younger brother in 1985. Unlike most teenagers, Lisa has a reason for her resentment. Every morning Lisa gets up, awoken by her younger brother, goes downstairs. Does the laundry. Eats breakfast. Practices the clarinet. Eats lunch. There are no surprises in her world, because she is living in a loop.
Every day is the day before her 16th birthday, which in and of itself is a bitter irony for any teenager. Lisa’s circumstances, however, are much more dire. She is dead, her whole family is dead, and she is the only one who knows it. Only one day something changes. She begins to hear voices. Whispers. Someone is calling her name, only this person is alive in her old house, and the evil that killed Lisa’s family is still there.
While many horror films are carried by deftly composed cinematography, Haunter benefits from a thoughtful script, written by Brian King, with complicated turns that keep the audience guessing. This family was murdered. It is a fact. And yet still there are so many questions that bring weight to the immediacy of the story.
At first it may seem too simple. After all, the protagonist is already dead. The stakes, however, remain just as high as she searches for answers behind the murder of her and her family in order to protect the girl reaching out to her from the present. Not unlike The Others (2011), conventional horror staples are inverted, with the ghost hiding under the blankets from an unknown intruder rather than the living girl shuddering at the sight of something moving in her bed.
Director Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Splice), who’s work could be considered auteristic for all its subtle nuances, blends fairy-tale imagery and music with darkly dreamy lighting and framing. The intricacies of each shot make them worthy of study and reflection. Natali captures a warm, realistic color palest for the ’80s and contrasts that with stark colors and a distinctly modern edge for scenes that take place in the present. These scenes are tied together through a fable-like soundtrack, included in both diegetic and non-diegetic sound, which is composed around famous sections from Peter and the Wolf.
Since the whole of the film is confined to a single house, the cast is relatively small but thoroughly effective. The narrative is essentially carried by Abigail Breslin, who charmed audiences as a child in Little Miss Sunshine and played a girl kidnapped by a sadistic killer in the recent thriller, The Call. Her performance in Haunter is authentic, and casting must be given credit for finding a capable teenager to play a teenager instead of finding an older actor to age down.
Eleanor Zichy, who portrays Lisa’s living counterpart, is scarce, but memorable in her performance. Peter Outerbridge stands out as an actor of incredible depth and subtle range as Lisa’s father and Stephen McHattie possesses a Caradine-esque quality in his chilling take on a merciless killer.
At times some of the narrative twists in Haunter may seem a bit munch, but there is some reinvention of old Italian horror in them that proves more interesting than clichéd. Running at roughly an hour and a half, the film does not waste a single shot, and every piece of the storyline is required in discovering the truth behind Lisa’s death.
The special features included in this single-disk prove quality really is superior to quantity. The primary features include a commentary and official trailer, though the most unique feature is the full storyboard. Unlike most stills, which require constant clicking on the remote to move from page to page, the film’s complete storyboard scrolls slowly on its on so that the viewer may get a proper feel for the filmmaker process.
There is also a behind-the-scenes featurette that includes interviews with the cast and crew, as well as production footage. The interviews are smart and surprisingly thorough, touching on different themes and stylistic choices. The featurette closes with a montage of images from the set, which bring it all to a proper close.
In contemporary cinema, it is rare to find a film that legitimately qualifies as a ghost story. It is rarer still to find one that manages to stay so true to the genre while managing to remain innovative and unique on its own terms. Haunter is dark, dreamy, and clever, bound to haunt audiences even as the credits roll.