Leave it to mad scientist director Vincenzo Natali to splice (pun intended) together a haunted house film that turns the tired old genre inside out. Natali's built himself a dedicated fan base with simple yet high-concept thrillers, and the best of them all involve some form of entrapment. His breakout, 1997's oft-copied Cube was a nifty cerebral horror flick about people trapped in a deadly cubed room. His most controversial film was the bonkers, deeply disturbing Splice about a scientist stuck in an uncomfortable love triangle with his girlfriend and a mutant hybrid chick. Haunter is one of the more thoughtful haunted house stories to arrive in a long time, although it's probably not fair to even label it as something so simple. It's a puzzling, beautifully constructed reverse ghost story that shows Natali is unafraid to push the envelope regardless of the genre.
Like a gloomy version of Groundhog Day, sullen teenager Lisa (a terrific Abigail Breslin) keeps reliving the same day over and over again, while her family are completely oblivious. It's the day before her 16th birthday, and her dad's repeated promises of a party that will never happen are starting to become tiresome. It doesn't take her long to figure out that something is terribly wrong, but it's unclear as to what. A misty haze covers every room of the house, spreading to the outside and preventing anybody from daring to leave. Her little brother has an invisible "imaginary" friend, which we all know is an immediate cause for concern. Lisa recognizes it, too, and soon she begins poking and prodding around the edges of this dreamlike mystery box they seem to be trapped in.
It doesn't take long for Lisa to discover the truth, that she and her family are dead, stuck in a strange supernatural limbo where the living are always just out of reach. On that level, Haunter bears a resemblance to 2001's The Others, and the film is just as elegant and well-constructed. Natalie and screenwriter Brian King cleverly play with our expectations, paying homage to numerous haunted house films forging something new and deeply unsettling. The bizarre multi-layered world is constructed with delicate care by cinematographer Jon Joffin, making the most of what is clearly a limited effects budget.
In its own way, the film explores the emotional malaise and boredom of being a teenager, and Lisa forever stuck at the age when a girl is most looking forward to escaping her family and embarking on her future path. To that end, Lisa ramps up her investigation, crawling through places she was never meant to go, opening doors never meant to be opened, and incurring the wrath of The Pale Man (Stephen McHattie), a devilish figure who warns her that something awful will happen if she doesn't fall back in line.
At this point the wheels come off the cart, so to speak, as the story becomes a convoluted "good vs. evil" tale involving time travel and old unsolved murders. Lisa begins communicating with the living, messing around with Ouija boards, and fashions herself into something of a spirit protector. There's also some sort of weird serial killer storyline that emerges which makes little sense and is never explained. It's possible that more experienced horror buffs will be able to piece it all together, but it may be confounding to those who are merely looking for a casual fright to pass the time. Coming off the maniacal Splice, Natali has made a very deliberate choice to do something more lyrical and measured, so those expecting the same level of craziness may be surprised by what Haunter actually turns out to be. It's an undeniably spooky, thought-provoking mystery that stands as one of the better ghost movies of the last few years.