Abandoning the perverse beauty of scientific mutation as last exhibited in his 2010 film, Splice, Canadian director Vincenzo Natali switches genre gears with a vantage point experiment on the haunted house thriller in Haunter. Reteaming with screenwriter Brian King, who wrote Natali’s sophomore film, Cypher, their latest collaboration feels akin to those curious live action young adult Disney films from the 1970s and 80s, with strong comparison that could be drawn between performances here as one could easily see Carroll Baker in the Michelle Nolden role and Bette Davis as Stephen McHattie, except without anything resembling thrills or intrigue.
In 1986, Lisa (Abigail Breslin) and her family are mysteriously killed, doomed to repeat the events of their last day of their lives within the house where something sinister seems to have happened. While Lisa’s parents (Michelle Nolden and Peter Outerbridge) and younger brother seem unaware of their plight, Lisa has awakened from this death stupor. However, as Lisa tries to investigate what happened to her family, the presence of a malevolent force known as the Pale Man (Stephen McHattie) tries to scare her into submission. But a new family in modern day has moved into Lisa’s house and a young girl named Olivia (Eleanor Zichy) may suffer the same plight if Lisa doesn’t do something about it.
Right away Haunter bludgeons us with heavy exposition, as Breslin, whose Lisa is a ghost that’s been “awakened” to her situation, must explain to her unaware parents (and us) what their Groundhog’s Day like existence in the rural fog is all about. And thus, a formulaic chain of predictability begins as Lisa makes contact with The Pale Man’s past victims as she tries to help Olivia in her current plight. It’s ghost vs. ghost as plot twists are revealed once we discover the Pale Man’s modus operandi and Haunter spins a cotton candy thread of thrills that seems like the teen sister of The Lovely Bones. Natali, whose 1997 debut Cube was quite the sensation, is no stranger to sustaining interest in a singular, claustrophobic setting, but this technique is grating and shrill here. Not only is there a repetitive monotony during the establishing act, almost despicable irritation sets in as we re-experience one banal day in Lisa’s life with a nasally haus frau for a mother and dullard dad, while a cycle of Prokofiev on clarinet, posters of David Bowie, Joy Divisions’ “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and Lisa’s prominent Siouxsie Sioux sweatshirt are the only insights into character development we’re treated to. Even that kids’ television series in the 90s, Ghostwriter had a better handle on that. While Breslin does her best, as the narrative rests squarely on her shoulders, Haunter is a tame let down considering it comes from Natali, an exciting genre director that’s usually a master of intriguing and offbeat films.