My first memory of a haunted house is when I was seven or eight years old. It was a small attraction, put on by the local Jaycees’ chapter. I remember watching as the older kids went in, screamed, and then came out on the opposite end, laughing. I remember being scared and wonderstruck at the same time. Looking back, there wasn't anything particularly scary about it (except the fact that the only way I'd go through was with some stranger dressed as Frankenstein), but that moment sparked my obsession with Halloween and haunted houses...
...Curious, I did a quick search for when haunted houses first became a thing and found this little tidbit on Smithsonian.com:
"The origins of the haunted house date back to 19th-century London, when a series of illusions and attractions introduced the public to new forms of gruesome entertainment. In 1802, Marie Tussaud scandalized British audiences with an exhibition of wax sculptures of decapitated French figures, including King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Marat and Robespierre."
Fast forward to 2019, and haunted houses are as mainstream as they come. Haunted hayrides, mazes, stores, movies, and attractions are everywhere. However, not everyone's need for a Halloween thrill is sated with the rich storytelling and the captivating charm of say, Disney's Haunted Mansion.
Which brings me to Scott Beck and Bryan Woods' (A Quiet Place) 2019 film, Haunt.
Produced with Eli Roth (Hostel, Cabin Fever), Haunt stars Katie Stevens (Polaroid), Will Brittain (Kong: Skull Island), Lauryn McClain (Superstition: The Rule of 3’s) and Andrew Caldwell (IZombie) as a group of friends, who, after a Halloween party gone bust, make the spontaneous decision to visit an extreme haunt that "promises to feed on their darkest fears."
After a long drive and some initial hesitation, the gang rallies their courage, sign waivers, turn in their cell phones, and enter the haunt with reserved excitement. Said excitement is short lived though, as it's not long before our ill-fated crew learns they would have been better off returning home and calling it a night.
If you’re reading this, then there’s a good chance that “group goes to scary place and bad things happen,” reads familiar. Literally, the plot to every haunted house movie ever.
Many other films have done this with varying levels of success, but Beck and Woods embrace this trope and stand out by creating title characters who aren’t your typical run of the mill, poor decision making, cardboard cutouts, that are too stupid to live. Instead, they take the time to develop smart and likable characters, like Katie Stevens', Harper, who we learn, has a traumatic past witnessing the domestic abuse of her mother by her father, and is now repeating it herself. This roots her in a reality we can empathize with, thus allowing us to buy in to the more extreme circumstances of the haunt later on.
Speaking of which, the haunt itself is a character. It is, in a word: intimidating. With tricks, traps and (scare) actors, the uncertainty it presents increases the tension as Harper and company creep through its winding halls. At one point, in what I assume is an ode to Andy Muschietti's IT, the group reaches a fork offering two directions, "Safe" and "Not Safe." Of course, this see's the group divided, doubling down as each unsuspecting party is given their own set of "tricks" to endure. One group is presented with a set of standing coffins (which I can't forget no matter how hard I try), and the other with a sharp game of "what's in the hole?”
As the film progressed, I began to get a Rob Zombie-esque feel when the haunt's eclectic cast, who, unfortunately, are never quite explained, make themselves known. I understand that in horror it’s believed better to leave things to the "audiences’ imagination," but a little bit of understanding would have gone a long way here. I would have loved to have had at least a basic knowledge as to why and who these haunters were. As a result, while creepy, they end up a bunch of walking/talking masks.
While the entire cast’s acting and dialogue is pretty spot on, it’s Andrew Caldwell’s, Evan, stole the show for me. His flamboyant, humorous, and matter of fact personality drew me in and made him an immediate favorite (after, in hindsight, an earlier, seemingly out of character scene for him). I couldn’t help but laugh and be terrified for him when one of the haunt’s actors asks if Evan still wants to see under his mask.
I genuinely enjoyed Haunt, but that's not to say it's without fault. I'm not a director and I've never made a movie, so who am I to judge? But there are some issues worth mentioning.
First, there’s the Harper-boyfriend thread. While it could have been something, it added nothing but an unused layer to Harper’s story. Then there’s the scene involving Harper and a shotgun that is a serious WTF, too stupid to live moment. This is followed by yet another WTF moment involving Nathan that had me rolling my eyes and sighing over an otherwise fun film.
And that ending… While satisfying, you need to disengage the thinking part of your noggin and enjoy it for what it is: a satisfying blow.
In the end, Beck and Woods created memorable characters that I enjoyed. The story is tense and captivating, and I found myself holding my breath often. If you're a fan of Halloween and haunted houses, adding Haunt to your list of October films is a no-brainer.
Haunt is now inviting viewers to a house of horror on VOD from Momentum Pictures.
By Daniel Boucher