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haunter

For a time, it seemed like writer-director Vincenzo Natali’s most recent full-length film, Haunter (2013), would be the first one of his movies to really disappoint me. Between the too on-the-nose title, a description that reads like a mash-up between The Others (2001) and Groundhog Day (1993) and a narrative thrust that parallels Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones (2009) to an uncomfortable degree, everything about Haunter felt clichéd and old-hat from the jump. But then, as often happens with Natali’s films, something really interesting happened: just when the film seemed doomed to follow its familiar path to an all-too familiar end, Natali pulls the rug out from underneath us, sending the film into some truly inspired, fascinating directions. By the fist-raising conclusion, one fact seems all too clear: count Natali out at your own peril, since this guy is the king of the 11th hour comeback.

From the on-set, there’s absolutely nothing special or original about Haunter in any way, shape or form: a decent enough credit sequence featuring CGI butterflies in jars leads to an opening scene between Lisa (Abigail Breslin) and her mother, Carol (Michelle Nolden), that makes it explicitly clear that we’re watching a variation on The Others. Despite what her mother and father (Peter Outerbridge) tell her, Lisa is positive that her family is caught in a loop of sorts, ala Groundhog Day. She figures this out due to the fact that it’s been the day before her birthday for, like, ever, which seems like a decidedly good clue. Lisa also seems to catch hints of mysterious forms, shapes and noises around her, ala The Others, including a bewitching snippet of music from Peter and the Wolf that appears to come from the ventilation grates.

One day, while exploring her house, Lisa comes upon a small, locked wooden door in the laundry room, similar to something out of Alice in Wonderland. As she continues to explore, Lisa tries to make subtle changes to her routine, changes when end up subtly altering key moments of her daily “loop.” More importantly, however, Lisa altered routine appears to put her in touch with two mysterious presences: Olivia (Eleanor Zichy), another young killer who appears to be in a different time than Lisa and Edgar Mullins (Stephen McHattie), a sinister, obviously villainous “repairman” who seems to know an awful lot about Lisa situation…and who cautions Lisa to mind her own business, lest she open her and her family up for torment the likes of which they’ve never seen. When Lisa persists in her investigations, however, she realizes that Edgar may be more powerful than he seems, especially once she comes down for dinner and sees that her young brother’s imaginary friend is now visible…and sounds an awful lot like Edgar.

Soon, Lisa is trapped in a life-or-death struggle between mysterious forces, all in an effort to save someone who she doesn’t even know, someone who may or may not even be real. As she gets closer to the truth about her condition and Edgar’s real identity, Lisa will make the ultimate sacrifice in order to right old wrongs and bring peace to the restless dead. Edgar is a canny monster, however, and has no intention of going into that good night without a ferocious battle: as always, the past isn’t quite as easy to overcome as it might seem.

As I mentioned earlier, my initial impressions of Haunter were anything but positive, similar to my initial impression of Natali’s debut, Cube (1997). In this case, Natali’s film seemed to slavishly check comparisons off a list, arriving at something that resembled a greatest-hits jumble of haunted house and time loops clichés. If watching Natali films has taught me anything, however, it’s that initial impressions don’t necessarily mean much: sticking through the familiar aspects, I finally got to that patented tweaking of expectations that he does so well. By the end, not only had Haunter quelled my previous concerns but it kept me rapt and on the edge of my seat all the way the closing credits.

The script is patently solid, another Natali trademark, but the real feather in its cap is an excellent supporting cast, featuring a truly awe-inspiring turn from character actor Stephen McHattie as the villainous Edgar Mullins. While Breslin is great as Lisa, equal parts inquisitive young person and world-weary protector, McHattie is a complete force of nature. It might seem reductive to tell someone to watch a film simply for the “bad guy” but you can make the case with many of the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels and you can certainly make the case here. Without putting too fine a point on it, McHattie is superb, creating a character that deserves to take its place in the “Bad Guy Hall of Shame.” No lie: the character and performance is that awesome…I was still thinking about Edgar Mullins for days afterward.

As the film gets trickier and less obvious, it also becomes exponentially more fast-paced and action-packed, all the way to a stellar climax that manages to reference both The Dark Half (1993) and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989). Similar to his work in Cube and Splice (2009), Natali ramps up to the action so subtly that we barely even notice the change from more austere haunted house chills to more overt thrills. It’s a nice technique that showcases a sense of restraint missing in many current low-budget indie horror films, a sense of restraint that other filmmakers would do well to emulate.

Ultimately, Haunter is not the most original film you’ll ever see: if I had to boil it down, I’d say that it basically plays like a better, more crowd-pleasing version of The Lovely Bones, albeit one that manages to work time loops into the mix in a thoroughly fresh way. Despite beginning with a rather tired, hackneyed idea, however, Natali manages to breathe fresh life into it: despite my general dislike of remakes, I’m coming to the conclusion that there might not be anyone better qualified to re-imagine an existing film than he is. After all, he managed to take an overly familiar concept and turn it into something shiny and new: if that’s not the whole point of a remake, I don’t know what it.

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