I’m indifferent to haunted houses. Went through a few when I was younger and even had a few friends who helped run them tell me some great stories. While none of them have ever truly scared me, I always keep in mind how being in one gets us to lower our defenses a little. We always believe that, though we are there to be scared, it is all in fun and nothing can hurt us. In some ways, this sets up an even worse situation if danger truly lies around the corner.
The setup for the film Haunt sees six college-aged individuals leave a lame bar in search of a haunted house, but they stumble onto the wrong one. This attraction was obviously off the beaten path for a reason, but they can’t say it wasn’t eventful. Haunt was written and directed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, who are famous in the industry for writing A Quiet Place and the upcoming sequel. Taking another stab at the director’s chair though, I have to admit that the duo delivered.
This is a movie that feels like it was handled with some care and shot like a movie with a much bigger budget. This is accomplished through good cinematography, tight close-ups that don’t overstay their welcome and some excellent lighting on the sets. When the characters do fight with the bad guys, those scenes are kept brief and framed well, preventing any of the scuffles from seeming too hokey or indulging. The group of killers in the film share a theme of classic Halloween monsters, appropriate to the environment, but still just a little extra spooky when needed. The masks and makeup are stunning in some scenes and were properly used to make an artistic and eye-catching poster.
I knew from seeing that promotional image that the directors had some potential to make a horror movie that could rise above the average fare. The first few minutes may feel a bit awkward as everything is set in place, but it won’t take long to begin building the tension. That build is slow, taking a bit of time to keep the audience questioning as to exactly how things will proceed. There are some slight jump scares, a small bit of playing with noises, but nothing that was ever annoying or too distracting from what was going on. The gore isn’t present early on either, holding off until the right moments, far from the squeamish torture porn that is shown off so much. It does ramp up along the way and will satisfy those who are seeking the violence, even if only in short bursts, keeping the blood paced out well.
Some of those elements work better because of the atmosphere, which is fantastic from the moment the characters reach the haunted house. The set design is wonderful and works to help the visuals, building even more tension. The second half of the film has parts that use a lot of silence and ambient sound or slight swells in the music to give the structure more character. Intelligent uses of these tricks keep the audience focused, even though cuts start coming faster. Not every scene flows perfectly, with a couple of moments dragging, but the movie was never derailed.
Perhaps not a surprise with knowing who is behind it, the writing isn’t bad at all, even if I have come to expect less within the genre. We don’t learn much at all about the fiends running the house, and it honestly wasn’t needed. A lot of plot points are made very clear about the characters upfront with painfully obvious statements, like having them state their fears and then forcing those scenarios on them in short order. Some things are almost too on the nose, like having the girl who has a lot of medical knowledge be a nurse for Halloween.
Haunt does fall to some of the more classic horror movie trappings in the second half, but it still hides those well within the story and characters. There were a few moments where one of the victims would make it to a new location or different position without indication of how they got there, making it slightly jarring, but never causing a major hole in the plot or screwing with the momentum. There was one of the deaths I absolutely couldn’t wait to see that was partially done off-camera and that was a letdown. The last few minutes feel quite rushed, like they realized that it might be dragging slightly or were in a hurry to show how the main character had changed, but forgot about everything else they could have touched on in the process.
Harper, our main character, is established early on to be in an abusive relationship and later to have survived a dangerous broken home. When we had the scene of her make-shift costume being Little Red Riding Hood, I saw that we were going somewhere, establishing her as this weak prey and a forthcoming change. I was hoping to see the script do a bit more with her not being afraid of ghosts, vampires, and devils, because of her countless encounters with real things to fear. I may have been wishing for too much out of Haunt. There were some small brilliant moments for sure, chances for opportunity. Harper has this beautiful halfway sequence when she shows bravery, just for a mishap to bring her right back down to her fear and insecurity.
I wonder how much lost potential was there, but those moments that do work are even better thanks to (again, at my surprise) the acting being solid, especially Katie Stevens, who plays Harper. There are a couple of weaker deliveries and a few lines that don’t always feel like they work for the character, but nothing that should take away from the enjoyment.
It’s amazing when horror movies that I know little about surprise me. I want more of that from talented people. Beck and Woods showed some of their love for other films with references to Night of the Living Dead and having the character of Evan wearing a costume from The Human Centipede. The end credits also revealed another big name in horror who was involved, with Eli Roth acting as a producer for the film. It doesn’t feel quite like one of his works, but Haunt has some of his style.
All of the right elements came together for the most fun I’ve ever had in a haunted house. I think fans of horror movies—especially those who watch a ton of them—will see the good things in Haunt. I hope we see more like it soon.