Haunt (2019) Directed by Scott Beck & Bryan Woods.
Six friends in their late 20’s stumble across a rural haunted house attraction that promises an extreme terror experience. Once trapped inside, they become filled with regret and sharp objects. “Haunt” was co-written and co-directed by the screenwriter and producer behind John Krasinki’s “A Quiet Place”, and produced by Eli Roth.
On Halloween night, Harper (Katie Stevens) is attempting to escape the paranoid clutches of her alcoholic boyfriend Sam. She agrees to head out to a club with friends Nathan, Bailey, Evan, Angela, Mallory and Ty. While Sam stalks her via text, the group finds a flyer announcing a terrifying haunted house attraction nearby. They set out in search of it, and ultimately discover the location in the process of fleeing Sam’s pickup truck as he trails them.
The greeter on the front lawn of the mysterious house is a Clown. To enter, the protagonists must correctly guess which of his fists contains the key. One of the qualities that sets Haunt apart from other flicks with similar tropes is the willingness to embrace subtlety. I wouldn’t call the film slow burn (the main cast is inside the haunted attraction 12 minutes in) but it thankfully allows for truly disturbing quiet moments that take the place of loud and obnoxious jump scares. When scenarios are given room to breathe and unfold, real horror sets in. A young girl staring up into the black eyeholes of a completely silent Clown is much creepier than, say, anything that happens in Ari Aster’s “Midsommar.”
Inside the walls, the group of friends encounters a variety of costumed performers. Each is based on a classic horror archetype. A Witch, a Devil, Death and more are driven to scare the bejeezus out of their guests. But when Mallory is seriously injured by a challenge, the gang meets a friendly Ghost. From behind a white mask, he identifies himself as a haunted house employee named Mitch and offers to help. And this is where the situation goes from alarming to nightmarish.
The interior of the attraction contains several puzzles and challenges for the group to solve, such as Guess The Body Part. Anyone who has ever been to a haunted house has probably had to stick their hands into vats of grapes (eyeballs) or cooked noodles (brains). It’s a classic gag, though it typically doesn’t involve so many razor blades. They do things a little differently in Haunt.
Our heroes also navigate some rather interesting architecture. A sliding board, rather than traditional stairs, connects two floors. The doors between two areas are coffins the heroes must enter one at a time to be permitted to the next stage. The Witch shows up occasionally to put on weird murder performances complete with a bubbling cauldron and a helpless victim. Sections of the house require the heroes to crawl on their hands and knees through rickety wooden tunnels. One room looks like a child’s bedroom and features a deadly exit.
The deaths are violent and well-staged, and set against the backdrop of an unfolding mystery as to what is actually going on here. The true nature of the antagonists is somewhat ambiguous. Are they just deformed humans? Are they supernatural ghouls? Are they a cult?
You want to know more about where they came from, but you won’t find those revelations here.
What Haunt delivers isn’t so-called elevated horror, as the more socially acceptable art house films of the last 5 years. It’s not meta or packed with highbrow cultural relevance. It’s just here to unpretentiously scare guests at your Halloween party, which is not to say that the film isn’t stylish and well-directed. It is, but devoid of post-modern subtext. From script to performances, it’s handled with enough care to separate it from the zillion other horror flicks with similar plots. The protagonists feel a bit more authentic and less like the typical mindless cannon fodder found in slashers, though “Haunt” does have some of the classic elements in the form of The Final Girl and the climactic pre-kill one-liner.
When the end credits rolled, I was shocked that this hadn’t had a mainstream theatrical run or made more of an impact in the press. It’s backed by Eli Roth, which would seem to give it greater visibility over most indies. Whatever the reason for Haunt’s quiet arrival on the scene, don’t let this spooky gem slip through your fingers this Halloween.
Body Count: 10
A woman is stabbed in the forehead with a heated branding iron.
A woman is impaled through the face on a pitchfork.
A man is bludgeoned with a hammer.
A man is shot in the head with a shotgun.
A woman is impaled through the torso on a pitchfork.
A man is shot in the chest with a shotgun.
A man is shot with a revolver.
A woman is fatally beaten with a metal door.
A man is beaten to death with a baseball bat.
A man is shot with a rifle at point-blank range.