In a decade in which horror films have been saturated with excessive gore, gratuitous violence, and cheap scares, Vincenzo Natali’s “Haunter” discards genre stereotypes in favor of a simple, creepy atmosphere.
Set in 1986, “Haunter” centers on the unhappy and rebellious teen Lisa Johnson, played by Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”). Her discontent is rooted in the fact that she is living the same day over and over again, similar to Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.” The key difference between Lisa and Murray’s Phil Connors is that Lisa is dead. In a reverse ghost story, Lisa is haunted by the people in the house, and she works against time to unravel her house’s dark past.
Natali is no stranger to the horror/fantasy genre: His previous film, “Splice,” frightened audiences with its infamous copulation of a scientist and her creation. Still, Natali asserts that he prefers storytelling to gruesome scenes.
“I responded to the script, less because I wanted to make a haunted house film and more because of the themes that it was dealing with: how reality can appear to be one thing, but is actually something entirely different,” Natali said in an interview with Spectator.
“Haunter” focuses on the idea that there is a dark force that invades this family’s existence underneath the happy and idyllic setting. Natali’s reversal of the haunted house genre makes the audience question what is real and what it really means to be alive.
“It’s almost less of a haunted house and more of a haunted labyrinth,” he said.
“Haunter” also benefits from its atypical tone.
“I would describe it as phantasmagorical,” Natali said. “It’s almost as much of a fantasy as it is a straight-ahead horror film.”
This distinct tone could not have been maintained were it not for the aptly cast Breslin. Unusually, while many actors portray characters much younger than themselves, Breslin actually turned 16 (Lisa’s age when she dies) two weeks before shooting the film. Breslin’s greatest contribution to the film is her ability to make Lisa’s situation believable.
“If I didn’t have somebody like Abigail—who is very empathetic and vulnerable and strong—then the audience wouldn’t necessarily engage in the way that they do with Lisa,” Natali said. “She has a tremendous range, a very nuanced actress, mature actress.”
Despite all the converging and diverging elements in his film’s mythos, Natali believes “Haunter” simply boils down to a story about being a teenager.
“The issue that she faces is one that virtually every adolescent, male or female, crosses at some point,” Natali said. “They know the truth about the world and their parents don’t have a clue. In her case, it’s the fact that she’s dead.”