Haunt (2019)

DECEMBER 23, 2019


For as long as I can recall going to haunted houses and "horror nights" theme park makeovers in October, I've thought that they should make a movie where people got killed for real at one. Well, now that we've had a few, I don't think we need any more for a while. Haunt is a perfectly decent slasher, and more mainstream than most of the Shudder exclusives that they tout a lot, but it's too silly/thin a premise to sustain being done several times in such a short period. Over the past few years we've had Hell Fest, The Houses That October Built (and its sequel), Blood Fest... not to mention things like 31 that change up the setup (those folks were kidnapped and forced to run through the maze, as opposed to voluntary ticket buyers) but otherwise play out the same. We get it! We should stick to the normal houses in our own towns!

In Haunt's case, even some of the dynamic is the same as Hell Fest's, as our skittish heroine Harper is coaxed on by her roommate and partially willing to go along for the ride because of her burgeoning crush on a nice guy. And while there's no proving anything, it's worth noting that the Hell Fest script floated around for quite a while before finally being produced only a few months after Haunt was shot, and from what I understand they quickly put it together to get it out for last year's Halloween season. So it's not too farfetched to assume that Hell Fest's long development process got the script into the hands of people who'd go on to make Haunt instead, and once the HF holders caught wind of it, barrelled their version through whatever the holdups were to get it done and out first so that they wouldn't be seen as the ripoff, which would just be twisting the knife considering how long it had been in the works (it has been around at least as far back as 2011, when Neil Marshall was attached to direct it).

There are two key differences though, both of which can explain why I ultimately preferred Hell Fest to this one. One is that in that movie, they were being stalked by a sole killer in an open, normally running park, opening it up to different possibilities and adding the always fun "no one will believe our hero" scenario. This meant that the action was rather backloaded, yes, but it was something different, and the tradeoff that they had no real reason to be cautious or confused about the situation, allowing them to hurdle over a number of the logic issues. But here, our group drives to this place in the middle of nowhere and there's no one else around and it's very creepy i.e. they should have had warning bells go off in the first place, so it's not as interesting - it's just "yet another", instead.

Also, Hell Fest's sole killer kept it firmly within the standard slasher template (which I love, warts and all). Here there's like a half dozen murderers working for this place, some of which you only see for the first time moments before they attack one of our heroes. I guess the idea is to make the odds feel insurmountable for our protagonists, but it just felt closer to cheating to me, as they could just keep throwing new killers at the kids until the 90 minute runtime was reached - I think it's only fair to establish just how many villains they had to get past in order to escape. It got pretty repetitive by the last half hour, I gotta say, and it denies us any real mega villain that we can really fear, as they're all kind of equal (and not particularly memorable). Like you know in Hellraiser III when they bring out those new Cenobites even though it's pretty much a Pinhead vehicle? Imagine if the movie was just those guys, and every time another one got killed a new, equally generic one would come along a few minutes later. That's what this is like.

All that said, it more or less gets the job done in a basic, no-frills kind of way. Our heroes are thankfully not obnoxious and have no in-group fighting to annoy me; I think the biggest drama is that the roommate loses Harper's mother's ring - when she's attacked! Harper is also a pretty great Final Girl - she's normal without being a wallflower (she actually makes the first move on the guy!) and doesn't need fifty attacks to finally fight back. I also liked Evan, the would-be boyfriend's best brah, who is introduced as kind of a dick (he spills a drink on Harper) but when they realize they're in real danger he's the most proactive about getting everyone out - he doesn't sell them out or leave them behind to save himself (which is what I expected him to do as soon as they arrived).

Indeed, the best thing about the movie is how it occasionally circumvents traditional cliches; the absolute highlight of the film is when Nate (the would-be boyfriend) does that thing where he reaches into a hole and pretends to get grabbed to scare his friends - a tired horror gag we've seen a million times, but then there's a fun twist to it that works really well. The final scene also does something like this, though obviously I won't be spoiling any details, and in this day and age I guess it also counts as a "twist" that our group doesn't all hate each other (indeed, later on I tried a random Christmas slasher on Prime and sure enough, the heroine's boyfriend had fooled around with one of her sorority sisters). The second best thing is that they don't waste too much time on the "is this actually happening or is it part of the act?" stuff, though perhaps if they HAD stretched that out a tad they wouldn't have had to run in circles (literally, at one point) to pad the rest of it out.

Considering it was from the writers of Quiet Place, and produced by Eli Roth, I guess I was expecting a little more from it, so I'd probably like it more a second time around if that were to happen. Again, it's an enjoyable enough movie, but it's not particularly novel or memorable either - the occasional "let's pull a switcheroo with this generic scare type moment" beats only make up a few seconds of a 90 minute movie, after all. But as I mentioned, a lot of Shudder's exclusive stuff tends to fall on the less mainstream side of things (like Prevenge and We Are The Flesh), so I think it's a good thing that they'll be the home to easy recommendable stuff like this in order to woo more casual horror fans. And if means more people might check out Hell Fest, even if just to compare, that's a good thing too!

What say you?

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