Helmed by first-time director Mac Cater, ‘Haunt’ begins with a grieving father trying desperately to talk to the spirits of his dead children via an old radio.
This electronic séance predictably ends in possession and tragedy.
Via voiceover, the man’s widow, Janet Morello (Jacki Weaver), later elaborates on the terrible curse that befell her entire household, leaving her husband and children dead, and she being the sole survivor.
Janet flees from her home, and it is sold off on the cheap to another family, The Ashers, some time later.
If the idea of a cheery Caucasian suburban family moving into a haunted house sounds all too familiar and tired to you, well we’re ahead of you.
Nevertheless, criticising a horror movie for lack of originality is kind of unfair. Horror stories somehow follow the same formula (unless you’re watching ‘Cabin In The Woods’), but the difference between a good horror story and a bad one is the filmmaker’s ability to make old concepts seem fresh, with a talent for repackaging well-worn fright tactics into something genuinely unsettling.
Take ‘The Conjuring’ for instance, there was nothing remotely original about its narrative, but it was James Wan’s execution that elevated it.
Now take all the things that ‘The Conjuring’ did right – depth of characterisation, compelling backstory, clever revelations – and realise that these are not found ‘Haunt’.
Carter follows the same recipe that Wan (and every other horror director) does, he just goes about it little less nimbly.
At almost every turn, plot logic and fleshed-out characters are eschewed in favour of crafting cheap jump-scares.
There are many shadows fleeting across the screen and ghouls popping up in toilets, for example.
To Carter’s credit, the film is visually adept at eliciting an atmosphere of dread, we just wish that spooky mood had been complemented by perils that felt more, well, perilous.
In fairness, there is one aspect that Carter handles splendidly, and that is the burgeoning romance between Evan Asher (Harrison Gilbertson) and literal girl-next-door Sam (Liana Liberato). Asher first discovers Sam crying in the woods, battered and bruised from an altercation with her abusive father. An awkward attempt to comfort a damsel in distress soon leads to something more.
When dealing with hormonal urges and the teens’ sexual awakening, ‘Haunt’ is much more compelling, at times feeling like it strives to be something more emotionally profound that your standard fright flick.
Unfortunately, this promising coming-of-age story is eventually gobbled up by the ghostly happenings and we’re quickly fed the same old boring haunted-house routine again. The movie even presents a twist ending as a last ditch salvage attempt, but even that isn’t nearly as surprising or smart as it intends to be.
There are so many loose ends (counting all the dangling plot threads is futile, there are far too many) and clumsy exposition in the form of random flashbacks, combined with the blandness of frights makes ‘Haunt’ a dud on most counts.
It’s such a shame too, because if only Carter had emphasised the teen drama over the supernatural silliness, ‘Haunt’ could have been so much more.
'Haunt' open 3 April and is showing exclusively at Cathay cinemas