No matter how much found footage, exorcism or slasher horror that recurring fads will spring upon audiences time and time again, there is no horror story as dependable or satisfying as an old-fashioned ghost story. And while new filmmakers have tried to put new visual spins on this long-lasting, classically-infused subgenre, others have attempted to recapture the essence of the old school ghost story, aiming to restore patience and subtlety in modern horror. Sometimes, however, some filmmakers find a happy middle ground between the two aesthetics and in a sense, create their own original depiction for the subgenre by amalgamating elements in a unique perspective previously unseen in past generations. Furthermore, such a process adds an incredibly startling psychological element to the proceeding: by forging a new path over the footprints of far-too-tread territory, one creates a film that atmospherically remains familiar, yet narratively can provide unpredictable and even subversive storytelling that feels appropriate to that approach.
Within those boundaries, Haunter, now in theaters and on VOD from IFC Midnight, flourishes as a story that remains genre in origin and conception, but remains as an almost fantastic cautionary tale with a unique sense of time and philosophy. Haunter, the newest entry in Vincenzo Natali’s directorial filmography, is unlike many horror films to date, and almost relies entirely on a sense of dread and tension rather than outright shock and terror. The point-of-view comes from a member of the undead, but in a very complex, layered narrative, that factor is almost inconsequential, merely posing an obstacle as the main character remains as the last buffer between a much more disturbed spirit and the world of the living. Repetition, angst and cognizance are all important factors in the journey, metaphorically or otherwise, of Lisa, the young spirit in question, but overall, Haunter works best as a fascinating venture into a world of spiritual unrest, proposing an existence akin to a surrealist psychodrama with consequences beyond mortal repercussions.
Technically speaking, Natali hits a home run again with Haunter, applying his incredibly striking visual intuition to a singular location and making the most out of his supernatural set pieces. As the universe changes, Natali changes the perspective alongside, adapting to the patterns of the narrative and working with cinematographer Jon Joffin to allow these changes to not only work fluid, but create sporadic light and color changes that feel natural in depiction. Despite dodgy CGI at times, the time lapse and image replacement technology in the film is fantastic, helping add to the sinister elements boiling under the surface of the antagonist and establishing the environment as almost prison-esque without any formal visual and expository analogies. Furthermore, the script from Brian King and the editing from Michael Doherty help everything feel cohesive and logical within the sole presented mythology, and are often conducive to the overall effectiveness of either aspect.
For a film that has such a small core group of actors for the better part of the story, there’s a certain expectation from the cast to carry the material, and luckily, Natali assembles a cast that delivers. Abigail Breslin is magnificent as Lisa, incorporating frustration, desperation and a need for communication in a performance that’s completely in line with the story’s antithetical depiction of the afterlife, and her performance in particular serves as an engaging and personal look into a specific emotional state stuck in time. Stephen McHattie is also hypnotically wicked as The Pale Man, portraying a very unique role with a twisted need for stability and order, which makes his horrifying role in the proceedings all the more psychologically complex. The rest of the supporting cast is equally brilliant in their roles, between Peter Outerbridge and Michelle Nolden as Lisa’s parents to Eleanor Zichy as a young girl in a similar predicament, and Natali fans will be pleased to see David Hewlett appear in another hard-shelled and erratic role for his longtime collaborator.
Overall, Haunter marks an important step in Natali’s career, as it’s easily his most accessible and psychologically clear-cut film to date and shows his versatility outside of esoteric, science-fiction laden horror. Haunter is a visually compelling trip into an unsettling but eerily familiar world, and as the story unfolds, one can’t help but be caught up in it’s entrancing mystery. With captivating performances, a script that never condescends to its audience and a mature, level-headed director behind the camera, Haunter takes an old subgenre to task and creates something original and fantastical in nature, all the while keeping a darkness brooding under the surface. By creating a story about the human spirit and emphasizing the human aspect of the spirit, Natali breaks ground on the modern ghost story, and for this viewer, it’s ground much worthy of further digging.