★★★ / ★★★★
Following a Halloween party, a group of college students decide to go through an extreme haunted house before calling it a night. Little do they know, however, that the masked actors are actually murderers who take advantage of the holiday for willing victims. Now, I know what you might be thinking: Yet another one of those movies? Well, yes. But—hear me out—it is a cut above pictures of its type because “Haunt,” written and directed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, strives to deliver beyond the expected jump scares. It is capable of giving the creeps, occasionally suspenseful, at times thrilling, and two or three moments are genuinely scary. There is craft and creativity put behind the eventual grisly images.
Haunted house walkthrough stories almost always solely entertain using violence. While the work is not above showing a hammer to the face front and center, there is a semblance of a story at work here. One of the students, Harper (Katie Stevens), who did not plan on attending a Halloween party (she doesn’t even have costume) remains traumatized by a violent past. Her father was physically abusive and her mother would get the brunt of it. Harper is so tethered to her past that she, too, has gotten into a physically abusive relationship. We meet her trying to put concealer on her black eye. It is appropriate that the movie show Harper undergo various levels of torment—both physical and psychological.
And yet the most powerful image is simple and straightforward: the character getting punched in the face when she is on the ground. There is no camera trickery. No blood spurting. No crying. She is hit square in face and she takes it. It happens in a split-second and yet that moment reveals plenty. She wants to survive, to fight, to live—probably for the first time in a long time. This may be a throwaway scene to most viewers. But not to me. The core of the movie, after all, is Harper’s liberation from the prison—the cycle of violence—she had not allowed herself to escape from. Being trapped in a haunted house is a metaphor.
Although apparent that Harper’s friends (Will Brittain, Lauryn Alisa McClain, Andrew Caldwell, Shazi Raja, Schuyler Helford) are simply sheep lining up to be slaughtered, notice the movie’s attitude toward them. One or two can be annoying at times, but each can be likable if one looks hard enough. More importantly, the screenplay wishes us to root for them. When they are hunted, the perspective is through the person being chased, not the one going for the kill. Even when a victim is on the ground, bloody, and all hope is lost, we are on the ground with him or her. There is not one shot that shows the killers savoring the moment after the kill. The writer-directors do not wish for us to feel disgusted by the images we have seen.
On the contrary, they wish for us to be excited about what’s to come. The haunted house offers surprises. The first few rooms are lame—fake skeletons popping out of nowhere and all. But the deeper the characters go, there are puzzles to be solved. Sacrifices must be made. It is a throwback to the more decent “Saw” movies. I always feel uncomfortable when people must put their arm into a hole and try to guess what it is they are touching. There’s no doubt laughs will turn to screams. I enjoyed its ability to build tension, deliver false alarms, then go for the major arteries.
Those who enter with an open mind are likely to be entertained by “Haunt,” a movie about trauma that must be exorcised. Another nice touch: the killers wear masks—a clown, a ghost, a witch, and the like—but more terrifying is what’s underneath them. This is loyal to the picture’s themes.