Haunted-house horror films are often victims of familiarity, but can be saved in their execution. Just look at The Conjuring and Insidious. Originality is hard to come by, but in his narrative feature debut, director Mac Carter showcases what he can skillfully do with a derivative genre. The cobwebs of the haunted house film have been dusted off and the subgenre goosed up with a tingly confidence, an evocatively wintry atmosphere, and several effectively skittery scares — Haunt is another Exhibit A. It’s plenty creepy, though not a patch on those films that have come before.
“The Morello Curse” has been derived from pediatrician Janet Morello (Jacki Weaver) and husband Franklin (Carl Hadra) losing their three children in their house years ago. The sole survivor, Janet, left the house and took her grief with her. Hoping for no bad juju, Alan and Emily Asher (Brian Wimmer, Ione Skye) uproot their three kids — young Anita (Ella Harris), 18-year-old Evan (Harrison Gilbertson), and college-bound Sara (Danielle Chuchran) — to that same large house tucked away in the woods. It is no sooner that they have moved in when Evan goes out for a walk and meets Sam (Liana Liberato), a neighbor his age who’s weeping over her drunken father’s abuse. Sam has been inside the Morello house before, so she knows how to sneak in at night and crawl into bed with Evan for comfort. Evan’s bedroom is the attic, where, natch, a crawl space contains an Electronic Voice Phenomenon radio device. Curious, the two teens try communicating with the dead Morello children. Alas, a door has been opened, literally, to the spirit world and one ghost has some unfinished business.
If you’re into making a checklist, all of the haunted-house hallmarks are accounted for in Andrew Barrer’s screenplay of Haunt — a creepy old house with a past, a little girl talking to a ghost, apparitions rushing by the camera, flickering lights, doors opening at night, etc. Fortunately, right from the start, Haunt evokes a quietly eerie sense of dread in its opener before an intense, jolting climax, as a father tries contacting his late children via the E.V.P. radio. After that harbinger of doom, Jacki Weaver briefly narrates, admitting that all ghost stories begin with a house, and that they do. The house holds a foreseeable mystery, which is telegraphed through a connecting of the dots in flashbacks. Once the history of “The Morello Curse” comes to the fore, at least the story doesn’t wimp out on an appreciatively malevolent conclusion.
The professional cast doesn’t always have a lot to work with in order to actualize the lives of their characters, except for reacting to the supernatural goings-on. In a wise move on screenwriter Barrer’s part, the Ashers already know about the house having a past and actually meet Janet when she comes to retrieve one of her son’s portraits in the attic. When Evan and Sam have a breakthrough on the E.V.P. radio, the parents are smart enough to tell them to keep well enough alone. As Evan and Sam, Harrison Gilbertson (who could pass for a younger Harry Connick Jr.) and Liana Liberato are appealing. Evan and Sam are both the same age and their new relationship is the heart and focus of the film. (One might wish there was a throwaway line to establish if these kids were just on a long winter break, or do they not attend school?) The other family members are shoved to the periphery, with Ione Skye’s radiant presence counting for something. Jacki Weaver manages to cut a haggard sadness out of the grieving Janet who now just wants peace; she also knows how to make a crazed smile.
There is such a fine line between being scary and surprising, as well as a fresh haunted-house movie and a plainly conventional one. Haunt falls into the middle. While director Carter likes making sure the viewer’s reflexes are working, like placing a deteriorating specter behind or in bed with a character and accompanying their presence with a loud, sudden musical sting, he knows how to engineer a seat-jumping now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t fright. When Carter eases up on the shrieky, heavy-handed scare tactics that would be more fit in the barely adequate 2005 remake of The Amityville Horror, the film still casts every nook and cranny of its starring house with an enveloping blanket of dread. After The Conjuring scared the pants off of last year’s round of spookers (which included Insidious: Chapter 2 and Haunter), it’s a tall order to live up to, frankly. As the supernatural-horror tropes occasionally go into rinse-and-repeat mode, Haunt comes away instilling the fear that all crawl spaces should be locked up for good.
Haunt will have a limited theatrical release from IFC Midnight on 3/7, and is currently available on VOD.