Directed By Scott Beck and Bryan Woods
Starring – Katie Stevens, Will Brittain, Lauryn Alisa McClain
The Plot – On Halloween, a group of friends encounter an “extreme” haunted house that promises to feed on their darkest fears. The night turns deadly as they come to the horrifying realization that some nightmares are real.
Rated R for horror violence/gore, and adult language throughout
– Most bang for the buck. Even for a production budget as minimally obvious as “Haunt” has, the film still manages to conjure up this exceptional side of production value that films worth twice as much can manage. The set pieces are devilishly delightful, spinning on the side of the “Saw” movies in set-up without any of the overbearing exploitation that soiled through a series of eight films. Their cheap rendering is justified in the idea that this is a man-made haunted house with very little monetary investment put into it. In addition, the variety of masks worn by the antagonists are not only contrasting in color schemes and design, but also reminiscent of the characters who wear them. For instance, the pre-dominant clown mask seen on the poster and throughout the film is worn by a guy with more of a humorous personality than the other accomplices, giving their opposition and the audience a taste of what’s hidden deep beneath the surface.
– Simplistic setting. 80% of this movie takes place at the haunted attraction itself, and that direction never limits the intensity of the material, nor does constrain the movements of our jaded protagonists. As far as size in scale goes, the building itself twists and turns in a way that we fully telegraph, allowing us to keep awareness in our minds as to where they are at during all times. Likewise, the diversity of style and decoration in each room never allows the setting to grow stale, keeping the cryptic ambiance constantly flourishing in the atmosphere, and progressing the flow of creativity endlessly. This very much feels like a lived-in realistic attraction that exists deep in the woods of isolation, enriching the film in a grounded approach of expectations that will have us fearing gimmick haunted houses in the same way “Psycho” kept us out of the showers.
– Gripping depth. I love a horror film that isn’t afraid to raise the bar of expectations with its characters and their dark backstories, and “Haunt” is certainly no lightweight in this regard. Our central protagonist is someone who has endured a lot physically and mentally in being someone incapable of escaping a vicious cycle that up until now has defined her life in a way that has mentally paralyzed her. It not only helps enhance the depth of the exposition in the screenplay, but it also contrasts the horror in the film on a level that renders it as only a physical obstacle, and one that our protagonist is certainly capable of handling thanks to everything that she has had to endure throughout her life. It’s proof that something as simple as a few extra minutes in the script can better flesh out characters, all the while outlining the various degrees of horror and their effect on the human psyche.
– No jump scares. How can this be true in a modern day horror film? A movie so confident in its imagery and character phobias that it removes cheap, timely scares from the picture entirely? This element more than any pleased me with this film, and established Beck and Woods as a voice of the minority, who know their audience better than most. Considering I am a 34 year-old grown man, there was nothing in “Haunt” that terrified me or even made me jump in the least, but the unnerving tension and ambiguity of the antagonist group establishes what is best and most defining about horror movies; fear of the unknown. In that element, the film’s gags offer a strong compromise of exceptionally directed anxiety and progressive unpredictability that keeps it fun and above all else committed to what mainstream horror should be about.
– Carnage candy. Despite the fact that a name like Eli Roth is attached as a producer of this movie, the subdued nature of the film’s splatter gore is something that I greatly appreciated, and allowed for those few scenes of incorporation to feel even more effective because of its restrain. What’s vitally important is that everything is done with practical effects, and not computer generated blood, serving as another in a field of positives for its minimal production quality that really allowed the film to prosper on the constrictions of its own merits. Pay-off’s in physical confrontations are squeamishly satisfying, made even more articulate by faithful shot compositions that never stray or look away from the intensity of the action. It casts enough emphasis on the horror elements of the story, giving us enough of the red without it ever going overboard in its exploitative nature, and it makes “Haunt” one of the ideal horror selections during a year when horror has been anything but exceptional.
– Delightful cast. It’s surprising to me how invested I was into each character, despite knowing very little about them other than their respective phobias that play into particular rooms in the haunted house. Aside from Katie Stevens central protagonist, who the film spends an abundance of time documenting the psychological trauma of her past, the rest of the ensemble is equally as intriguing, each balancing the typical haunted house crowd that anyone who has endured one has become accustomed to. There’s the quiet guy, the two girls who are there only to scream at the excitement of the situation, and of course the one talking tough guy who serves as the brave muscle for the group. All of them are believable in the requirements of their respective roles, and none of their personalities grated on me to the degree that I was happy when they were quite literally cut-free from the movie.
– Tight direction. It would be rude not to commend the two men who made last year’s “A Quiet Place” the rousing success that it was, who have now done the haunted house setting better than “Hell Fest” ever could. Most of what I enjoy about the duo of Beck and Woods is their harvesting of the atmospheric elements, which better illustrate the environment they are trying to convey. Like “A Quiet Place” last year, sound becomes a pivotal documentation in this film as well, and soon the blowing of the leaves, the chirping of the bugs surrounding our setting, and the echoing quality to the haunted house itself brings forth an attention to detail rarely seen in horror or any other kind of genre cinema. Throw this in with exceptional pacing that continues to build throughout many rooms and scenes, as well as several misdirection’s on what would otherwise be predictable sight gags, and you have cinematic gold in the form of two men who understand that subtleties matter in horror movies.
– Horror cliches. Yes, unfortunately even a movie of this caliber can’t escape predictability in tropes that hardcore fans can distinguish from a mile away. It’s not a major deal during the first half of the movie, but the third act in particular settles for decisions with its characters, as well as logical inconsistencies that leave it stumbling towards the finish line. Aside from this, the characters themselves each fit their conventional modes without even a slight attempt to escape these constrictions. On a performance level, each of them are great, but on a character outline level, you can easily piece together who will survive, and who is there to fill the body quota.
– Frustrations with clues. I don’t get them. If this is in fact a killing house in the woods meant to satisfy these deviants, why is there even an inkling to help them escape? This is easily the most frustrating aspect with the third act of the movie, as text on walls more than alludes to what these helpless victims need to escape their pursuers, and considering this is a setting where the antagonists should have all of the home field advantage, I didn’t understand why they would then be in favor of throwing them a security blanket. Call it poor writing or logical inconsistencies, but I felt and still feel that it rewards the protagonists more if they can outsmart their captors, and reach freedom based on their intelligence. It acts as the biggest hole in what was otherwise a tense powder-keg to that point, and reverts our masked antagonists back to feeling like the gimmick side of their intimidation during the most convenient moment.
– Faulty editing. Probably my lone critique in the visual presentation deals with a protruding editing style that unapologetically takes us out of the heat of the moment during the worst time possible. For a majority of the film, the characters are split up into two groups to fight the adversity of the house’s operators, creating a good amount of parallel action to balance simultaneously. This can usually be effective if the two sides are mimicking each other beat for beat, but the manner of abrasive cuts drifts away from a scene, leaving the audience to fill in the blanks while we cut to the other group. When it cuts back to the original group, they are then in a completely different situation or room than when we last left off, and while it’s not entirely difficult to fill in what has since transpired, the frequency in over-zealous cutaways gives the film a very disjointed feeling because of the repetition that diminishes its quality.
My Grade: 7/10 or C+