Review: Haunt

The creepy poltergeist at the center of Haunt.

The creepy poltergeist at the center of Haunt.

With limp found-footage flicks like Devil’s Due and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones piling up at the box office, it’s gratifying to see that there are writers and directors out there devoted to making actual, full-blooded horror. Enter director Mac Carter and writer Andrew Barrer, two newcomers to the genre who prioritize mounting suspense over jump-out scares in Haunt, to great effect.

Haunt, about two teens (Liana Liberato and Harrison Gilbertson) simultaneously exploring first love and interacting with malicious ghosts, is a scarily effective frightfest precisely because it flies in the face of the trash that has been polluting the horror genre in recent years. There’s no nausea-inducing shaky-cam, no frustratingly ambiguous ending and, best of all, no characters so moronic that you actively root for their demise.

Instead, Carter cunningly exploits his limited setting for maximum suspense, turning the house Gilbertson’s character moves into a dread-filled labyrinth that’s as much an antagonist as the ghosts that roam its halls. The cinematography on display is eerie and uncommonly beautiful for a horror film, from the desolate forest that surrounds the house to a basement so creepy that I didn’t go down into my own for a few days after viewing (just to be safe).

Carter is aided by Barrer’s screenplay, which never goes for easy scares or one-note characterization. As such, when the scares really kick up a notch during the film’s pulse-pounding final act, they’re both remarkably effective and feel completely earned.

Liberato and Gilbertson’s strong lead performances also elevate Haunt above other recent horror fare. They share a soft, natural chemistry not unlike Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley’s in The Spectacular Now, and, thanks to them, the romantic subplot of the film never feels extraneous. Particularly, Liberato, with her expressive eyes and graceful screen presence, makes a strong case for herself as one of our generation’s next great scream queens.

In supporting roles, Silver Linings Playbook’s Jacki Weaver chews the scenery as the sinister previous occupant of the house, who lost her husband and children to the vicious supernatural being inside it, and Ione Skye shows up briefly as the supportive mother of Gilbertson’s character. Machinations of the plot render Skye’s character ultimately peripheral, but the actress is clearly invested in the role and turns in a believable performance.

Sadly, the impact of Haunt is slightly lessened by its final few minutes, which conclude the story on a decidedly bitter and disturbing note. Carter and Barrer’s ending intentionally subverts conventions of the genre, and while many will applaud it for that, it’s a testament to the strength of the acting on display in Haunt that I was dissatisfied with the slightly rushed nature of its final scare.

Still, Haunt is the best horror film of 2014 so far, and it heralds the arrival of some major talents, so I’m willing to forgive it that shortcoming. It’s refreshing, well-acted and delightfully spooky. So what are you waiting for? Go get Haunt-ed. Your nerves won’t thank you, but you won’t regret it.  A-