Continuing on our countdown to Halloween, this week brings us an honest to goodness, goosebump inducing, arm & neck hairs standing on end, thrills & chills fright that even had me jumping a bit with those noises and sudden haunting whispers. A good old fashioned haunted house ghost story with a twist, HAUNTER is hauntingly chilling. Showcasing everyone's favorite "Little Miss Sunshine", Abigail Breslin, with a performance that calls for depth, emotion and carrying 90% of the on-screen scenes, director Vincenzo Natali toys with the idea of life after death and eternal suffering a la "Groundhog Day". With HAUNTER, Natali plays with the mind and turns the typical ghost/haunted house story on its ear, creating nothing short of an enthralling emotional and visceral experience.
15-year old Lisa Johnson knows that she and her family are dead. While her parents and younger brother go through the same routine day in, day out, with the same conversations, same clothes, same meatloaf and mashed potatoes on the dinner table, same few clarinet bars of the theme from "Peter and the Wolf", Lisa is acutely aware that something is amiss. This is a hell beyond teenage rebellion. But when Lisa starts to question the situation, the eternally rote routines take on a macabre tone as evil itself appears in the house, driving Lisa deeper into the mysteries of the Johnson home.
The more Lisa digs, the more she discovers. For over 70 years, girls in the area have disappeared and died. Whole families have died in the Johnson house; usually by asphyxiation in the garage, but the deaths are all unsolved. Searching her home from attic to underground cellar, Lisa finds clues that lead her not only to the evil responsible for all of these murders, but connects her to the past, present and future in a temporal explosion of human connection that alters life, death and the after-life for all.
Abigail Breslin has spent almost her entire life stealing our hearts on screen, and for some of the fortunate few, off screen as well. A far cry from the adorable water-obsessed alien fighter in "Signs" or just being "Spencer Breslin's little sister" or her award winning turn as "Little Miss Sunshine", as Lisa Johnson, Breslin is put to the test, proving that she has truly learned her craft and morphed into an emotionally complex and textured actress. HAUNTER rises and falls on Breslin's performance; a performance layered with teenaged angst, familial love and frightened nuance of a little girl. Capturing teen rebellion and angst perfectly, every teen can relate to the character of Lisa, as can every parent. Her facial expression is terrific with its subtleties, aided by perfectly done eye make-up - just enough Bowie glitter rock and Banshee era goth to show that Lisa has an edgy side to her while still being a good daughter. She has not "gone over to the dark side". This slightly goth tint also aids in metaphorically tacitly leading us to believe that that's why Lisa is cognizant of them being dead before anyone else. She has this "understanding" and "connection" to the goth things. Kudos to writer Brian King and Natali for that subtext.
Notable with Breslin's performance as repetitive scenes that are identical to the one prior until the final moment when things "change up." Stand-out are her reactions to slamming door scenes where Lisa reaches for a doorknob, turns the knob with calculated trepidation, only to have the door slam to black screen. On a second try, she flings the door open to find inky blackness, her response to which is a fear in her eyes that is palpable. The gasp in her breathing. Dichotomous emotional blend that conveys each emotion perfectly. Breslin reels you in with such intensity and conviction that you feel as if you are right there, side by side, shoulder to shoulder.
Adorable is Breslin's on screen relationship with Peter DaCunha as Lisa' little brother Robbie. The two clearly relish the "pain in the ass little brother - ultimate big sister protection" dynamic. (Obviously Lisa is much kinder to Robbie than I would ever be to my younger siblings.) While you will easily recognize DaCunha from his myriad of tv commercials, as Robbie he has depth laced with innocence; believable as a child but with an old soul, reminding me of the Charles Wallace character in Madeline L'Engle's book, "A Wrinkle In Time."
Significant to the construct of HAUNTER is the Freudian aspect the father figure. While we meet several fathers from various time periods as the temporal worlds collide, the one we most frequently see is Lisa's father, Bruce, played by Peter Outerbridge. I am always ambivalent about Peter Outerbridge and here is no different. More or less a functional actor but never strong or standout, he is perfect as Bruce given the need to have the character consumed by the essence of evil. Outerbridge always conveys "wimpiness" to me and here it works to his advantage.
Simply described as "The Pale Man", the legendary Stephen McHattie is pure evil. Completely creepy and chilling, the hairs stand on end and your heart catches in your throat every time he appears on screen, and in no matter what incarnation. He is the personification of evil. Absolutely delicious.
Directed by Vincenzo Natali and written by Brian King, HAUNTER easily moves between ghostly temporal dimensions with a believable fluidity, positing discussion on life after death and eternal suffering; not to mention raising some serious questions on fathers and father figures. Rather original in its conception (although HAUNTER does harken to the Nicole Kidman vehicle "The Others" with the dead wandering around in their house and on the grounds as if alive. But that's as far as the similarity goes.), we find out quickly that the Johnson family is dead and thus the trope gets turned on its head by eliminating this element of suspense and concentrating on the elements that are truly terrifying. We get to come along on Lisa's journey. Script is well constructed with little hints in the dialogue that foretell things to come and incorporate standard haunted house ideas without being too obvious or too much of a trope. Everything is tweaked just enough to lure you in to the mystery and tie all the ends together while still retaining essential ghost story/haunted house vehicles like air vents, wall grates, lighting and noise.
As Natali notes, "[HAUNTER] deals with a lot of themes that I have been obsessed with over the years. On one level it's about adolescence. It's about how when we're teenagers we see the world one way and we know the truth about the world but our parents are entirely blind to it. . .It is that duality that really fascinated me. Then it's also a film that is very much about family. . . The movie is kind of an onion-layered film. Every time I read it I would peel away another layer and see something else." But beyond the family and adolescence moments is the fragmenting of the father figure which were some of the most enjoyable moments for Natali. ". . .[O]n its face everything seems perfectly normal and the family is having this kind of perfect suburban day together, the most wholesome kind of meal together, yet you know under the surface something truly disturbing is lurking. That, of course, is connected directly to the father. It evolves over time. I think it's unusual for a horror film to be as emotional as this movie is." Surprising, and unexpected, is the sweetness that develops through the course of the film.
Without making this a spoiler, let's just say that the ending is beyond cool. The ambiguity created is a brilliant philosophical twist that begs existential discourse on life, death, temporal planes and tesseracts. I am enthralled with that aspect of HAUNTER.
From a directorial standpoint, Natali is masterful at creating visceral tension and scares while grounding the film but adding an "ethereal" other worldly visual and emotional tone to the bandwidth as a whole. It's a tricky balancing act but he does it with rapier precision. And something so often overlooked in haunting house and ghost films is sound design. We expect things that go bump in the night. But to tweak voicing into soft high pitched echoes that subtly appear just adds yet another layer of goosebumps.
Visually stimulating is that HAUNTER is self-contained within one setting - the Johnson house. When Natali talks about designing the film set entirely in the house, his excitement is beyond palpable. "[W]e gradually discover this house is unto itself, a kind of universe and there are all kinds of strata of reality that coexist in this one space. That's just an exciting thing conceptually. From the point of view of visually portraying that, it's exciting because you get to explore that environment with a kind of fine tooth comb and in a way that you wouldn't if you were blazing from one location to another. It's like a symphony where you have one theme and you're endlessly creating variations on it and therefore, in some ways, you can become more baroque and outrageous and creative in the way that you show it."
For a world like HAUNTER, it's all about atmosphere. Coming into play is not only Natali's prior directorial experience with films like "Cube" and "Splice", but also his background as a storyboard artist and animator for children's animated tv series like "Babar", "Rupert" and "Beetlejuice". With HAUNTER, "I want to see something that's unnerving and disturbing played out in a very beatific setting and light." With this in mind, Natali called upon cinematographer Jon Joffin. His work is so effectively tonal. Overhead slow moving pans capture the rote routine which Lisa sees but no one else does; it makes us feel Lisa's angst and frustration at her family's blindness. According to Natali, "[Joffin] really created an atmosphere. If you make a haunted house film, which HAUNTER is, it's all about atmosphere; everything lives and dies by that. And it's a very intimate kind of horror film." And it's the lighting that helps create that intimacy and atmosphere.
Here, lighting is effectively manipulative where it needs to be to evoke shock and scares, while having a permeating normalcy of an everyday family life. The visual contrast with sunlight and reality though is striking and further complements the thematics distinguishing life from death. The Johnson home has a golden glow, yet saturated and sharp edged feel. Jump to the future with Olivia and it's softer, like a GE Soft White lightbulb with the exterior yards vibrant and green and sunlight with blue sky like a perfect East Coast day. " The other thing that Jon did beautifully, I felt, was light the faces as if they were a landscape. A lot of the movie is about faces. . .We worked very hard to always put the faces in a half-light. There's always this sense that we're only seeing part of what's there."
An exciting visual aspect of the film is not only creating the different eras of ghostly planes, but particularly going back to the 1920's and the acts which set the stage for what would happen for the next 100 years. As we jump back in time to the 20's, sound design, already meticulous, takes front and center stage as we hear film strip sprockets clicking in an old 16mm projector, making this sequence a completely sensory experience, fueling the visual texture of aging, speed adjustment, complete set design change to Victorian red velvet wallpapers, patina and sepia toned photos and tint to the scene. Fabulous saturating color play and "film distortion" like something stored in an attic. This third act sequence is exceptional filmmaking and storytelling. Key for Natali is that "It was important that each era be portrayed in a very distinct and unique way. The primary time period we're in is the mid-1980's which is when Lisa and her family were killed. That was painted in very warm tones. When we go into the present, we actually wanted to treat it sort of from Lisa's point of view so it's almost like going into a science fiction film and the lighting becomes much harsher and cool, somewhere between sci-fi and reality tv - much more immediate. Whereas when we go back into the 1920's, there's this kind of patina of an almost George Melies or a silent movie. . .It was really fun to re-examine that same space through these different lenses."
Mind-bending, thought provoking, the terror and haunting here comes from within the mind - and that's always the best kind of terror. It's palpable, tangible, resonating. HAUNTER will haunt you long after the credits roll.
Directed by Vincenzo Natali
Written by Matthew Brian King based on a story by Brian King
Cast: Abigail Breslin, Stephen McHattie, Peter DaCunha, Samantha Weinstein, Peter Outerbridge