★ / ★★★★
Lisa (Abigail Breslin) and her family (Peter Outerbridge, Michelle Nolden, Peter DaCunha) are living in a loop: as each day wraps up, it begins on the day before Lisa’s sixteenth birthday. There are details that remain constant: laundry having to be done, the telephone being unavailable, and father fixing the car for the next day’s celebration. Lisa has somehow become aware that she and her family are dead. When the Pale Man (Stephen McHattie) learns of Lisa’s knowledge, he pays the family a visit.
“Haunter” is a most uninspired supernatural horror picture. Its premise is directly taken from movies like Alejandro Amenábar’s “The Others” and M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” so one would think that maybe it would strive to go beyond the fences of its concept. After all, if it did not, why make the film at all?
Its attempts to scare lack sense. We learn very early on that Lisa and her family are deceased and yet there are about half a dozen scenes where the protagonist is supposedly scared of some malevolent presence. She goes to investigate a strange noise. She breathes heavily. More strange sounds. More heavy breathing. I stayed in my seat in complete astonishment. Was screenwriter Brian King really convinced that what was on paper was actually scary? Lisa is the ghost! Is it supposed to be ironic?
The character is not written very smart. Lisa lives—or lived—in the mid-‘80s, not the Middle Ages. She appears to be in touch with pop culture given that her bedroom walls are covered with posters of musicians and movies. And yet we are supposed to believe that she does not know how to use a Ouija board properly? A whole lot of scary movies in the ‘70s and early ‘80s show characters communicating with the dead using the spirit board. Still, Lisa, who is supposed to be desperate to contact the other side (the living), fails to keep her fingers on the planchette. I wanted to scream at her.
The first half is a complete slog. Just because the day repeats with certain details having to be repetitive, there is no excuse for the material to be soaked in boredom. Lisa is bored—Breslin is good at rolling her eyes and portraying a hormonal, whiny teenager—and so we are bored, too. Our protagonist, the one who is supposed to be the anchor of whatever paranormal phenomena is occurring, fails to do anything interesting or come up with ideas that are truly out of the box, decisions designed to snag our attention.
The special and visual effects are showy and at times unnecessary but that is the least of the film’s problems. “Haunter,” directed by Vincenzo Natali, suffers from a lack of a workable screenplay. It underachieves instead of being willing and really pushing to be more than an experience to be forgotten right when the end credits appear. I am not convinced that anybody, especially the filmmakers who helmed this mess, can tell you with a straight face that is worth your time.
The Barrens (2012)
★ / ★★★★
It was important for Richard (Stephen Moyer) to help his family to feel closer to one another so he decided to take everyone camping in Pine Barrens, the same grounds that he so enjoyed visiting when he was a kid. But even before they reached the campsite, a bloodied deer without antlers and intestines hanging out walked across their car and died, foreshadowing the horrors about to come. The Pinelands, at least according to local legend, was haunted by the Jersey Devil: a ravenous creature with wings, a kangaroo’s body, and a horse’s head. Written and directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, what could have been an interesting tale of the lengths a man would go to force his family to function as a single unit partnered with their collective struggle to survive in the woods was hampered by poorly executed and redundant scenes of arguments, intense glares, and idle chatters that served little to move the story forward. Once the rangers gave the family their designated spot, the aura of mystery and intrigue was immediately sucked out of the picture. Not even a supposedly scary story around a campfire felt inspired. Of course it had to end with a person sneaking up to someone and yelling, “Boo!” There’s just something wrong when our own experiences of listening and telling stories around a campfire had scarier moments in it than what was being portrayed on screen. The family dynamics was not without drama. Cynthia (Mia Kirshner), Richard’s wife, was not the biological mother of Sadie (Allie MacDonald), a teen in her rebellious phase. While it was nothing new that the two eventually learned to depend on each other when circumstances turned dire, Sadie was especially hard to root for given that the material failed to offer a believable explanation as to why she had so much animosity toward her stepmother. If the negative energy Sadie exuded came from her need to protect the memory of her biological mother, it wasn’t communicated or explored in any way. Since the premise of the film was for the family to get closer as a unit, we should at least have had an inkling about where each was coming from. They should have been allowed to speak about what was important to them even if the things they valued didn’t seem that important to us. The only character who passed as believable enough to be in this story was Danny (Peter DaCunha), Sadie’s little bother who was depressed about the disappearance of their dog. He did not want to go camping just in case his pet returned when he was away. DaCunha gave the most entertaining reactions to the increasingly horrific elements encountered in the woods. I wondered if the film would have had a more potent mix of horror and wonder given that we experienced the story through his eyes. The connection between the reality of the missing dog and the legend of the Jersey Devil was eventually revealed with little force behind the punch. This could be attributed from the script’s lack of perspective, relying too much on showing people being lost in the woods and finding dead things. The ending of “The Barrens” was reflective of the picture as a whole: abrupt, superficial, and unsatisfying. It felt like no one bothered to write a final act that felt right as long as there was blood dripping from behind the screen.