Haunt (2019)

Haunt first published by SciFiNow

Young student Harper (Katie Stevens) is a victim twice over. She still bears – faintly – the bruise on her face from where her alcoholic almost-ex stalker boyfriend Sam (Samuel Hunt) hit her the other night; and she also bears the mental scars of her childhood home – which she expressly terms the ‘haunted house’ –  where she was terrorised by her father’s endless physical abuse of her mother. Harper is meek, timid, unassertive, an easy and obvious target to predatory, punch-happy men – but in Haunt, over one long, harrowing Halloween of cat and mouse in the outer precincts of university town Carbondale, Illinois, Harper will discover her inner strength and learn to give as good as she gets. This emotional and psychological transformation will take place at an off-road extreme haunt event whose masked organisers have – or appear to have – murderous mischief in mind.

Harper and her companions – her roomie Bailey (Lauryn Alisa McClain), friend Angela (Shazi Raja), pugnacious Evan (Andrew Caldwell), arachnophobic Mallory (Schuyler Helford) and similarly scarred nice guy Nathan (Will Brittain) – chance upon the Halloween event while, significantly, trying to evade Sam. An isolated factory-like building that has been converted into a series of rooms, corridors and mazes, this extreme haunt is designed not only to play upon its users’ deepest fears, but also ultimately to be their deathtrap. The creepily malevolent grotesques running the show make little sense as characters, but what is more important here is the way that they and their environs come to reflect Harper’s own history and trauma, giving her an opportunity to restage a confrontation of which, as a child, she was not capable. Harper, like Nathan, may have a body marked by injury, but is on a path to recovery.

Written and directed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (Nightlight, 2015; co-writers of A Quiet Place, 2018), Haunt falls into a subgenre of recent films – Preston DeFrancis’ Ruin Me (2017), Ante Novakovic’s Fright Fest (2018), Owen Egerton’s Blood Fest (2018), Gregory Plotkin’s Hell Fest (2018), Anthony DiBlasi’s Extremity (2018) – that exploit the rise of ‘extreme haunt’ events to reproduce for the viewer that strange frisson of not quite knowing whether a scare is purely a vicarious fiction, or something more real and legitimately life-threatening. Amid the carnivalesque atmosphere of Samhain, where everyone wears a mask, Harper, victimised for the third time, finally gets to show her true face. Along the way, the audience is taken through some very unnerving sets and set pieces, which become ever more sinister and labyrinthine the more these confused co-eds tread and retread them. Sometimes, the only way to escape one’s fears is to face them head on, and fight back – and Harper’s ordeal will inevitably end where it started, at home.  

© Anton Bitel