First published by Grolsch FilmWorks
“History doesn’t repeat itself,” declares the sinister Pale Man (Stephen McHattie) in Vincenzo Natali’s Haunter. “It rhymes.”
This is certainly true for Lisa Johnson (Abigail Breslin), an adolescent goth who just wishes she could break free from the stifling quotidian repetitions of her family’s middle-class suburban life. Except that if Lisa’s Siouxsie and the Banshees T-shirt, her Bowie and Bauhaus posters, and her Rubik’s cube (itself a visual reference to Natali’s 1997 breakout film Cube) all seem to mark her as stuck in the Eighties, that is only because, in a very literal sense, she is – forced to live and relive the eve of her sixteenth birthday ad nauseam, in a sort of ghostly Groundhog Day. Lisa, you see, has been dead, along with her family, since 1985, trapped in a limbo of her last day alive – but now that she has suddenly ‘woken’ and become aware of her purgatorial state, she is determined, by any means possible, to wake her mother, father and little brother out of their daily iterations and to stop the Pale Man, himself no longer alive, from continuing his endless serial killings from beyond the grave.
In other words, this is a ghost story turned on its head, or a haunted house movie reverse-engineered from the limited inside perspective of the haunter – and if it shows events rhyming down half a century’s worth of a home’s occupancy, it also overtly echoes motifs from other films spanning several different decades: Insidious‘ fog-bound ‘between’ space, The Awakening‘s animated doll’s house, Sinister‘s attic full of home movies, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark‘s spooky voices issuing out of air vents, Beetlejuice and The Others‘ ghosts haunted by the living, The Amityville Horror‘s possessed father, and The Frighteners‘ conception of an after-afterlife for ghosts.
So, much as they did with 2002’s Cypher, Natali and writer Brian King remix familiar genre elements into an allusive high-concept puzzle – only, this time round, as their heroine tries to outwit McHattie’s murderous villain, exploiting her own powers of possession and recruiting his many other victims to send him down forever, the clever ideas quickly give way to a more straightforward – and therefore less satisfying – battle between good and evil (resolved explicitly in terms of heaven and hell). And while Haunter initially relishes deploying cruel satire to tear apart the values of the white middle-class American nuclear family, by the end that very same family model is reintegrated and put forward as a harmonious paradigm of Elysian bliss, apparently without irony. All this sentiment comes across as disappointingly conservative and pat, in a film that certainly does not start out that way – or are we to suppose, more subversively, that rebel Lisa has just ended up caught in precisely the trap that she thought she was escaping?