In the horror genre, one must admit that the length of a career isn’t necessarily in correlation to the quality of output, as many of the classic directors of the genre have sunk into creative and technical disinterest following years of critical and commercial ups and downs. That rollercoaster ride can often be straining to one’s passion and ego, and therefore, it’s not surprising to see those influential names become increasingly selective and cautious about their output. However, that same caution can go for filmmakers who still have their edge, but still choose to preserve it, as to make sure their projects contain the amount of valid conceptual strength and character building that one often loses sight upon when dealing in the genre for so long. In that latter category resides Vincenzo Natali, who has made merely a handful of film projects since his 1997 directorial debut with the now-modern-classic Cube, but has made each entry count in terms of making content that stands firmly free of creative interference.
And in the same way Cube paved the path for low-budget, philosophy-driven horror such as Saw to thrive in the modern horror lexicon defined by shock and terror, Natali’s new film, Haunter, provides a previously unseen perspective into the ghost story subgenre, which has more recently been on a comeback trail of its own. By giving life and desperation to the ghosts themselves and placing them at the center of the story, Natali gives the audience a world of his own design that’s eerie and yet wholly representative of the ideas constantly tiptoed about in human-centric ghost stories, as defined by the dangers presented and the characters created by scripter Brian King. In that sense, Haunter still shows Natali’s strength as a visually defined storyteller with a penchant for deep characters and deep philosophies, not yet jaded from the Hollywood system nor compromised by the pressures of the expectations within independent genre world. With Haunter finally arriving on the scene last weekend from IFC Films, Vincenzo Natali opened up to Diabolique about his process, his past and the construction of the afterlife in Haunter…
DIABOLIQUE: Haunter is a ghost story that’s very unlike any tale in the genre that’s come before it, and often shows a restraint and maturity that one doesn’t commonly see in films that alter the common narrative perspective. What was it specifically about Haunter that attracted you to the project?
VINCENZO NATALI: You know, it’s funny as it’s always hard to answer that question because it ends up being a bunch of things. In this case, I think it’s partly the idea that this girl, Lisa, who is reliving the same day in 1985 over and over with her family, appears to be existing in a happy suburban home, but from the get-go, we know something is deeply disturbing behind that façade. So the duality of that scenario is what I thought was cool. Then, in some ways, Haunter taps into what it means to be adolescent in that Lisa knows that she’s dead, but her family doesn’t, and just like a lot of teenagers, she believes that she knows the truth about the world and they’re completely blind to it. I think that’s something everyone can relate to.
But then, there was just this beautiful, puzzle-box labyrinth that Brian [King] constructed in that house, and I loved the way that Lisa traversed these various realities that all coexist in this one place. So the whole [attraction] was an amalgamation of all of this stuff.
DIABOLIQUE: Even though the mythology set in the piece is layered, the story is pretty straightforward and the film is executed with a driven simplicity. Was this simplicity important for you when approaching this project as a filmmaker?
NATALI: Yeah. I’m a little bit of a minimalist, and I like taking one theme and playing variations on it. Haunter is very much that kind of movie. That’s a part of the excitement and challenge of directing a movie like that: how can you take that one thing and spin it in multiple ways? When you find yourself in that situation, it opens up the possibility of doing interesting things. In a way, it almost necessitates that you do, because otherwise, the audience is going to get bored.
There’s an instance in Haunter where Lisa goes into the past and I felt not only free, but obliged to do something unique with that sequence. It’s just exhilarating to be able to do that. And also, I tend to work with very low budgets, so I don’t have much of a choice. [laughs] That’s just the way it is. One of the lessons I learned early on is that when you’re making low budget films, you want to limit the number of elements that you work with. You want to do a few things very well rather than a lot of things poorly. So it’s a happy marriage between economic limitations and creativity, I suppose.
DIABOLIQUE: In addition, do you think that simplicity was beneficial for you in directing the actors, as there were less narrative and technical plates that you had to spin simultaneously?
NATALI: Yeah. Haunter often becomes a character piece, and for a horror film- if I can even call it that since it’s a very emotional movie and it’s quite a sweet film; I kept thinking of Neil Gaiman when I read the script and the kind of things he does. If I could use the word, I would almost call Haunter “fantasmagorical.” It’s somewhat of a fantasy with darkness lurking around the edges. But in the film’s heart, Haunter is very sweet, which is new for me. That’s not really something I’ve done before. But Haunter was a real opportunity to work with some of those actors, all of whom were magnificent.
DIABOLIQUE: Of course, the ghost subgenre is one that is difficult to be unique within since the subgenre has existed for so long that much of it’s territory has been covered previously. Was there anything visually speaking that you wanted to avoid or emphasize that may or may not had been done previously in another ghost tale?
NATALI: Well, I like horror films that are beautiful. I think it’s a nice combination when you have something that’s a little bit sweet and a little bit sour. I really wanted this movie to be aesthetically pleasing and really quite classical in the way that we shot it. So that was definitely a goal. As for other movies, I don’t think I was particularly influenced by any horror films or other haunted house films, at least not in a conscious way.
If there’s anybody that I ripped off, it’s Ingmar Bergman. [laughs] I really looked closely to Persona, which, if you think about it, is a kind of ghost story. I’ve always found Bergman’s ghosts more frightening than any other because they’re always very real, and there’s nothing overtly ghostly about them. In fact, the only thing that distinguishes them from the living is that you know that they are not living. There’s just something inherently disturbing about that.
Persona is about the connection between these two women who become an almost literal mirror image of each other. That seemed, at least to me, to be a variation on what was going on between Lisa and Olivia. So if you look at Persona, you’ll see that I basically ripped [Bergman] off in a few places. [laughs]
DIABOLIQUE: One of the things that really caught my attention while watching Haunter is that the film is incredibly palatable, both for an IFC Midnight release as well as for an entry in your filmography. It’s content is fairly tame and yet it never feels condescending or disrespectful to its audience while retaining its inherent suspense. Do you think you could have achieved the same film if you had made it with studio support or are your sensibilities too adjusted to the aesthetics of independent filmmaking?
NATALI: You know, that’s such a funny thing. I don’t want to sound… listen, I keep trying to sell out, but no one will let me! Though I have every desire to do a studio movie, and I really would like to work on that scale. More than anything, I want my movies to be seen, which, without a studio, is difficult to operate and impossible to compete on that level.
However, the flip side of it is having not done a studio movie, I’ve had final cut of everything I’ve ever done, so I’ve never suffered through what a lot of filmmakers do when they go through that process. It seems like the studio system is becoming increasingly bureaucratic and corporate since the budgets are so high on these [blockbusters], and there’s a lot of fear and a resistance to taking any kind of risk.
The movies I’ve done, for better or for worse, I’ve always treated like an experiment. I’m never 100% sure if they’re going to work going in [to the project], but that’s part of the thrill for me. The movies I like to watch are the ones that take me somewhere, as an audience member, that I haven’t been before and often do unexpected things. So I have really conflicting feelings about that whole [system] but at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter because I don’t have a lot of say in it. [laughs]
DIABOLIQUE: 2013 has been a banner year for horror, as plenty of projects, many of which sporting relatively low budgets, have seen incredible returns at the box office time and time again. Was there any specific reason you chose to produce Haunter independently than, say, take the Blumhouse route?
NATALI: Well, the way we make movies, or the way I make movies- I say we because I have a producing partner, Steve Hoban, here in Canada- is very much based around all the benefits that come with making a movie in Canada. So we get to be our own bosses, and when we’re dealing with a movie on the scale of Haunter, it’s actually a very easy proposition for us to finance a movie like that. So our approach to it was “Let’s make the movie and then see if anyone wants it. Let’s do the film the way we want it to be done rather than subjugating ourselves to the studio process.”
Trust me, I’ve had partitions with studios on the development side and that can be a very mind-numbing and frustrating experience. So I’m very grateful and glad that IFC Films has Haunter, and they’re doing a great job releasing it. I would have loved for a studio to pick it up but that just didn’t happen. But having said that, it’s just beyond my control. What I wanted to control was the making of the movie and that is the benefit of doing it the way we did it.
DIABOLIQUE: For a piece so dependent on the strength of it’s cast, especially as most of them play variations on the dead, did you ever have any specific considerations when searching for the right cast?
NATALI: Well, I didn’t think of them as ghosts. I wanted them to feel, in fact, quite the opposite, as to what I was saying about Ingmar Bergman. I wanted the ghosts to feel very real, as if they are living people, and to that end, I wanted actors who had a lot of complexity and range to them, and that’s exactly what we got. We were very fortunate to get Abigail [Breslin], who carries the movie on her little shoulders since she’s on every scene and she’s really magnificent in the part. The same thing [can be said] about the other actors: Peter Outerbridge, who plays her father; Michelle Nolden, who plays her mother. It’s a much more emotional movie than one might expect from a horror film.
I hate using the words “horror film”. I don’t think that this is a horror film, at least not in the way that word is used these days. I like the word “phantasmagorical.” It has aspects of horror to it but it’s a fantasy, and it’s almost an Alice in Wonderland story. But at the end of the day, it’s about the people. It’s about family and the relationship between Lisa and her family, and the reconciliation she comes to at the end. It’s also about her relationship to Olivia, the living girl that is haunting her.
DIABOLIQUE: How important was it to you to keep the fantasy elements within the story? Did you ever drive Brian King’s script in that direction before filming?
NATALI: Yeah, though it was on the page, you know? All I did was render it on screen, but I really wanted it to have almost this surreal quality. If you look at ghost movies, they’re supernatural but also surrealistic, as does anything that has to do with the supernatural as they’re irrational and that steps them into the waters of surrealism. But with Lisa’s journey, I saw her stepping from this banal world into something that’s very dreamlike and nightmare-like, of course. That was really thrilling to me.
There’s a dinner scene where the family dies at the table, and I think you could pull that right out of Un Chien Andalou because it’s totally Bunuelian. It’s also absurdist, too, because the family are like idiots! They’re on autopilot, like automatons reliving the same motions over and over, and they’re just perpetually happy in it; it’s like a circle of hell. So I think there’s a little degree of satire and social commentary going on, not to mention it was taking place in 1985, which was a decade of amnesia, so it’s more than horror.
I love horror! It’s just the trends in horror as of lately have narrowed what that word is capable of encompassing. So I wanted to make- and I know Brian wanted to make- a film that exists outside the boundaries of what we typically refer to as “horror” these days.
DIABOLIQUE: It’s quite interesting that you have those classical influences, especially since your own work has been influential on many modern day horror filmmakers. What do you think about the upcoming class of filmmakers, especially those in the genre world coming out of Canada?
NATALI: Well, I just finished filming a horror anthology series here in Canada that I’m producing, called Darknet. I did quite a bit of research and saw a lot of young filmmakers work, and it’s amazing. I feel like there’s a wave of new horror directors in Canada. It’s a little movement; a little revolution here, where they’re doing really cool stuff. If you look at what the Soska Sister’s are doing or Jason Eisener, it’s very transgressive, crazy, interesting, cutting edge stuff.
It’s invigorating and I think it’s cool. These are people who aren’t working in the studio system, at least not yet, but they’re doing really crazy, edgy stuff.
DIABOLIQUE: So, as a Canadian, what is it about Canadian life that inspires such nightmarish visions and a need to deviate via horror film?
NATALI: I think it is politeness. I think Canadians have a very polite society, and you could make a similar comparison to Japan, which is an even more polite society and they make the most twisted stuff there is. I think it’s an element of repression that inspires that perversity, and then it’s just the cold. It’s the winter. It’s the fact that for 6 months of the year, you don’t want to leave your house. I think there’s a little bit of Cabin Fever that comes along with that.
DIABOLIQUE: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of your other work aside from Haunter. Firstly, have you ever considered returning to the realm of comedy after your experiences with Nothing, which is now in it’s own right a cult classic?
NATALI: Oh, that’s nice to hear! I didn’t know anyone had seen Nothing. Although, that is true, every once in a while, somebody comes up to me about Nothing, and it makes me feel really good because that film kind of lived up to its title. Truthfully, the only thing of my own that I’ve ever wanted to do a sequel to is Nothing! The problem is, of course, nobody wants a sequel to that movie, so I don’t think we’ll be seeing that anytime soon.
But I like comedy! I mean, a certain kind of comedy, but yeah, I’d happily do another. I even want to do a musical, and I’m only half-joking. I strive to do different things with every film, and I know that there’s a lot of common thematic material between them, but I really want every film to be different from the other.
DIABOLIQUE: Considering you’ve worked in each genre separately, have you ever considered tackling the horror comedy subgenre as a feature film?
NATALI: Oh, sure! Those are obviously very comfortable bedfellows. Sure. Actually, long ago I’d made a short called Elevated, which is half-comedy, I suppose, and definitely a horror film.
DIABOLIQUE: Of course, you’re still best known for Cube, which was a really inventive, psychologically tormenting horror film that hit when Hollywood was off making the multitude of Scream imitators. In fact, the film is still incredibly popular today, transcending the “cult” status and reaching “required viewing” instead. In your opinion, what do you think has given Cube such a irrevocable longevity?
NATALI: I don’t know. I don’t think there’s an answer to that, really, except that when I made Cube, I felt like I had been finding something that had already been constructed. I felt like an archeologist, unearthing a cube hidden in the sand. I think it’s very archetypal: the whole concept of a maze with a notion of entrapment. I stumbled on it, believe me, but it’s a very deep thing that resonates and it’s a movie that still affects people for that reason. It just connects to some aspect of our consciousness because, in a sense, we’re all trapped in our little cubes, we’re all looking for a way out and there are no instructions.
DIABOLIQUE: Have you ever considered returning to the universe of Cube, either in a separate story or in terms of applying those same philosophies to a concept that may exist before or after in that shared universe?
NATALI: Well, I think Haunter definitely shares some DNA with Cube, so philosophically, yes, for sure. Even though these are genre movies, they’re very personal to me. I wouldn’t call them autobiographical, really, but they definitely come out of my life. Even Haunter, even though I didn’t write Haunter as it’s Brian’s script, but I related to it tremendously. I was Lisa’s age in 1985, when she died, so it’s very personal, and therefore, the things that the films are dealing with are being poked at in different angles.
I want to do more science fiction, but the problem with science fiction is, generally speaking, it’s a bit expensive. Even for Cube, we should have had another half a million dollars, because the cube itself might have had a few missing panels. [laughs] There might have been a coffee cup or two in there. It was a bit rough around the edges, which I suppose is a part of its charm. If you do science fiction, if it doesn’t look good, forget it. Horror can exist much more comfortably with a lower budget.
For a long time, I’ve been trying to make [William Gibson’s] Neuromancer, and I’ve been working on it for years. I still am, and hopefully, it’ll get made, but one of the things that has made it difficult, of course, is the fact that it’s not like Cube. It’s a very expansive universe with many, many things going on, and they all have to look great. Even with Splice, which was the largest budget I’ve ever had, I was still dealing with two characters, essentially, in primarily two locations. Well, actually three characters, though one of them is a creature. But I only had to do those few things well, and I could really spend time and focus on them.
But with something like Neuromancer, there isn’t a “cheap version” of that movie. I could do it for a lot cheaper than Hollywood, but for an independent film, it’s still expensive. That’s how it is with science fiction. I have had some things that I’m working on that are a little bit more modest.
DIABOLIQUE: We know you’re likely forced to keep mum on the subject, but is there anything you can tell us about your upcoming short in More ABC’s of Death?
NATALI: No, I don’t think I can, lest I become a living example of one of the letters of the alphabet. [laughs] But it’s kind of fun. When you get one of these assignments, it feels like you’re being contacted by a secret organization. They work very much outside the parameters of the normal film industry, so these packages are emailed to you and all the legal work is done remotely. It’s very mysterious and weird. Therefore, I don’t think I’m really permitted to talk about it.
DIABOLIQUE: So, aside from Haunter and ABC’s, do you have anything else in the works? Where does Neuromancer stand in terms of realization?
NATALI: As I said, with Neuromancer, we’re just trying to put together the production and the financing. As always, I have multiple things going on; I would much rather focus on one thing at a time, but with the nature of the business, you’re doing many things at once because you have to sew so many seeds. So I have some other things, but I hesitate to talk about them just yet, but theoretically, you might hear something about them in a couple of months.
I should mention, and have already mentioned, the TV series I produced here in Canada, an anthology series called Darknet. I wrote and directed the pilot, and we’re premiering it online on Halloween Day. So in the next week or so, you’ll start seeing some stuff filtered out over the internet related to that.
DIABOLIQUE: Our last question: hypothetically speaking, should you be given a blank check to produce anything as your first film in the Hollywood studio system, as long as it’s not a film you’ve made before, what project would you most want to tackle?
NATALI: Other than Neuromancer? Well, I grew up with comic books, and I don’t particularly want to do a superhero movie at this stage because I just feel like we’ve been inundated with them, but if someone would let me do Swamp Thing, I’d be a happy man.
Haunter, directed by Vincenzo Natali and starring Abigail Breslin, Stephen McHattie and David Hewlett, is now in select theaters and on VOD, iTunes and Amazon from IFC Midnight. For more on Haunter, you can check out the film’s official website, or you can like IFC Midnight on Facebook and follow them on Twitter: @IFCMidnight. For more from Vincenzo Natali, Darknet and IFC Midnight, frequently rest your spirit here at DiaboliqueMagazine.com.