The new film from the writers of A Quiet Place fails to break from convention.
With the rise in popularity of horror theme parks in recent years, a small subgenre of horror films has begun focusing on the horrific potential of finding yourself immersed in a real life murder show. 2018 saw both Hell Fest and Blood Fest join the fray, and this year there’s Scott Beck and Bryan Woods’ Haunt.
Unlike its 2018 brethren, Haunt isn’t focused on an entire park; it is explicitly situated in a single haunted house attraction. The production was shot in Kentucky (the “unofficial capitol of haunted houses” per the press notes) in a former dairy factory, which helps lend the setting plenty of character.
Beck and Woods, who co-script and co-direct, have a dynamite premise on their hands. There’s an inherent terror baked into the idea of willingly signing away your rights via waiver and relinquishing your cell phone in order to be scared. Throw in the fact that the college students at the center of the film barely even consider the implications, something most people have probably done at some point when signing arbitrary documents. In this case, how would you know that you had unwittingly signed your own death warrant until you were already locked inside the madhouse?
Haunt opens on Harper (Katie Stevens), a victim of domestic abuse, attempting to conceal the physical signs of her boyfriend Sam (Samuel Hunt)’s anger from her roommates, Bailey (Lauryn Alisa McClain), Angela (Shazi Raja) and Mallory (Schuyler Helford). In an attempt to lift her spirits, they drag her along to a Halloween-themed bar night, which fizzles out early, but not before Harper has a meet-cute with nice guy, Nathan (Will Brittain), after his drunken friend, Evan (Andrew Caldwell), spills a drink on her.
The group seeks out a nearby haunted house, happening upon it unexpectedly after Harper makes them pull off the side of the road because she thinks Sam, who repeatedly texts and calls her, is following them. Beck and Woods – and the masked workers of the haunted house – have far more homicidal plans in mind.
Haunt works best early on when its premise feels fresh and exciting. There’s a dreadful anticipation hearing the “rules” that the group must abide by (1: Stay on the marked path; 2: don’t touch the actors; 3: perform actions quickly and exactly as told, and; 4: all cell phones put in lockbox) because you know that doom awaits when they inevitably break them. The group is almost immediately separated upon entering the space; they split into two groups down “Safe” or “Not Safe” paths, which include a variety classic horror throwbacks such as spiderwebs, funhouse mirrors and narrow passages where actors lunge out with fake chainsaws.
These early moments are so effective because Beck and Woods draw on audience expectations. As an audience, we know that the characters are in danger and there’s an eager anticipation to see what fate will befall them, as well as when and in what order. A scene when the “Safe” participants stick their hands through holes to feel unseen objects is particularly effective in the way that it plays off memories of childhood party games while simultaneously building up tension. Surely one of these hands will be stabbed, or fingers will be hacked off, or they’ll be pulled in. It’s just a matter of time.
When the attacks finally do begin, it takes time for the group to realize the danger that they’re in (initially they dismisses a few incidents as part of the immersive experience). Unfortunately at this point, Haunt begins to lose its footing. In their desperation to escape, characters begin acting foolishly: they wander off alone, they trust people that they’ve only just met and they assume that a door marked EXIT isn’t simply another prop.
Unfortunately neither the script, nor the direction, offers something fresh to help Haunt stand apart from any other generic offering. None of the college kids aside from Harper and Nathan make an impression and the villains remain masked in mostly unremarkable costumes for the better part of the film. Even when the killers show their true identities and their motivations briefly outlined, the reveal is barely shrug worthy and hardly memorable.
By the time that the remaining survivors begin to fight back against their haunted house oppressors, Haunt has already overstayed its welcome.
This leaves the film’s appeal hinging on the likeability of Stephens and Brittain. The latter is perfectly fine, playing a mostly sidelined lead and occasional bad guy goil. As the de facto lead with the tragic family backstory, Stephens (of Faking It and The Bold Type fame) is the real protagonist and in this capacity, she does what she can with a threadbare character. Harper is emblematic of a new generation of Final Girls, in that she’s a survivor who mostly keeps her wits about her, but never becomes a superhero or a slayer (see also: Samara Weaving’s Grace in Ready or Not). This is laudable (and helps with believability) though it does mean that for the majority of the film’s 92-minute runtime, Harper and Nathan are simply moving from room to room, attempting to survive their funhouse experience, not fighting back.
This leaves the scary set pieces. Despite a producing credit from Eli Roth, Haunt is far more in league with the restrained violence of Beck and Woods’ previous screenplay credit, A Quiet Place. There are a few gnarly sequences, including a moment when a character must crawl over flesh corroding adhesive tape, or dig through a bucket of bird corpses, but for the most part, the kills fall into run-of-the-mill territory (a gunshot, pitchfork, fire poker, etc). Considering the set design and the premise, the way that characters are dispatched is a touch underwhelming.
The biggest issue, however, isn’t that the characters tend to make poor decisions, or even that the scares lack tension, but rather that the pacing tends to drag, particularly in the film’s back half. By the time that the remaining survivors begin to fight back against their haunted house oppressors, Haunt has already overstayed its welcome. This fact is only underlined by the poor creative decision to tack on an underwhelming coda that produces more laughs than chills.
Haunt isn’t a bad “curl up on the couch with popcorn” Halloween horror flick, but, sadly, it doesn’t live up to its potential. Beck and Woods would have done well to spend a bit more time plotting this haunted house out.
Haunt opens its doors in theatres, On Demand and Digital Sept 13.
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