Review: HAUNT, Bloodthirsty Psychopaths Run This House
Horror attractions like haunted houses and escape rooms borrow heavily from movies in both their designs and their scares. They're commonly populated with Leatherface clones, killer clowns, and green-faced girls in need of an exorcism.
Many will unabashedly use the soundtracks of classic horror movies like Halloween or Psycho as background music. Now, in fittingly cannibalistic fashion, cinema is recreating those experiences — earlier this year with Escape Room, and presently with Scott Beck and Bryan Woods' plainly-named Haunt.
If a scary escape room or haunted house is doing its job correctly, you can entertain the fantasy that it could all be secretly real, and imagine the terror of being trapped in your own horror story. “Extreme” versions, like the infamous McKamey Manor, take that fantasy one step further. A horror movie about a Halloween haunt turned sinister seems a logical next step.
Haunt concerns six college student friends in small-town Illinois on Halloween, but our protagonist is Harper (Katie Stevens). She has an abusive boyfriend, doesn't have a costume, is hesitant to go out partying, and may as well be wearing a shirt that says “Final Girl” on it. Her three roommates convince her to ignore her boyfriend's alarmingly unhinged texts in order to come out clubbing, and from there they add two hetero males to their party: generically handsome Nathan, and condescending, sarcastic ham Evan.
After leaving the club, the aimless group comes across a sign on the side of the road, advertising a haunted house. Naturally, they decide to pay it a visit. They are greeted by an unnervingly silent man in a clown mask, and make the regrettable decision of leaving their cell phones in a lock-box at the front door. The characters make foolish choices, but in this context it feels justified—after all, they've been drinking and they have no reason to believe they're in anything but an innocent haunted house.
Unfortunately, as you may have guessed, this is a house run by bloodthirsty psychopaths. Beck and Woods give us only vague (and intriguingly strange) hints at who these murderous folks are, or what their motives might be. Like most horror villains, they seem determined to simply wreak havoc, with aspirations somewhere below Jigsaw's but above Jason's in scope. I'd certainly be keen to learn more about their backstory, but there's also something to be said for maintaining an air of mystery.
As the group moves through the haunt, they realize they're being picked off, and begin trying to fashion an escape plan. Flashbacks of Harper's troubled childhood (her father, like her boyfriend, was an abusive drunk) are woven throughout the proceedings. The trope of a protagonist drawing on past trauma in order to overcome her current situation is a stale one, and Haunt doesn't do much to revive it here. If anything, the grave and somber tone mars what is otherwise a fun concept, one that needn't take itself so seriously. Eli Roth is listed as a producer, and it's a shame none of his humor made its way onto the screen.
Writer-directors Beck and Woods are best known for writing A Quiet Place along with John Krasinski, but they've worked together on several previous lesser-known films. They co-direct Haunt with an assured, experienced hand that keeps it from feeling too cheap. However, there isn't much energy or creativity to be found in their visual style. The same goes for the masks worn by the haunt 'staff.' Masks are inherently creepy, yes, but after countless Purge movies, frozen China doll faces and smiling opera fools just aren't as disturbing as they once were.
Beck and Woods have a very obvious affection for the genre and, should they stick to it, will no doubt make something genuinely great at some point. This film isn't it, but it's entertaining enough to deserve a spot in your upcoming seasonal horror marathons. With a stronger ending, a more charismatic cast, and some much-needed levity, Haunt could have been something memorable.