Written by Richard P. Serin
Filmmakers have always used horror to explore the darker sides of human behaviour, often in ways that most other genres couldn’t get away with. Sometimes this is achieved with such subtlety that people can be left arguing about the subtext for decades. Other times there’s as much subtly as a Peacock trying to blend into a flock of chickens.
The 2019 film Haunt, written and directed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (of A Quiet Place fame) and produced by Eli Roth (among others), places itself proudly in the latter category. If we might be in any doubt we are shown our protagonist, Harper, watching George A Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’, perhaps the most famous example of social commentary dressed in horror clothes. This film has a sub-text, and it doesn’t want you to miss it.
Taking place on Halloween, the film follows a group of teenagers who, being bored with an unremarkable Halloween party, set out to find something a bit more exciting. It’s an itch that leads them to a remote Extreme Haunted House Experience. Once they’re inside, having signed release forms and managing to get a key from a creepy guy in a mask, the first impressions are not good. What this extreme attraction appears to be is a lame fairground experience: tacky lighting, stock spooky sounds and cheap plastic skeletons set-up for cheap jump scares. It’s not long, however, before things start to feel somewhat more ‘authentic’. A disturbing encounter with a live actor, dressed as a witch, leaves the group unsure of what they have just witnessed, and sets them up for the increasingly grisly things to come.
During the first act you’d be forgiven for thinking this is just another 90s Teen Slasher homage, with its slightly over-polished production and generic college drama tropes. And while the slasher genre is always present, stalking from the shadows, Haunt also has other tricks up its sleeve. It dips its toe into the scummy waters of ‘Torture Porn’ but never overplays it’s hand; not something most Torture Porn films manage to achieve. Because of this, the violence, when it comes, is all the more shocking.
There are good jump scares too and, as with its violence, the film doesn’t rely too heavily on them. If anything, much of the horror is cultivated from the reaction of the characters as events unfold. The script is mostly functional but well delivered and never distracting. Rather than being fed lazy dialogue the actors are left to act, telling a story through body language, actions and facial expressions.
While this story is one of teenagers seeking excitement in an ‘extreme’ haunted house experience that proves to be a little too extreme, it is also a story about masks. Each of the antagonists wear a mask, and the house wears a mask too, as it lures its quarry with promises of terrifying, but safe, entertainment. The film pulls the same trick. Because hidden beneath the polished veneer, and the promises of teen slasher cliches, is the – just too realistic – violence, the minimalist industrial soundscape, and the spectre of domestic abuse.
Within the first few minutes of the film we see Harper attempting to cover a bruised eye with make-up; an injury inflicted by her abusive boyfriend Sam, and flashbacks from Harper’s childhood are scattered throughout the film. The first of these presents an image of white picket fence suburbia – the classic Lynchian metaphor of superficial domestic bliss, under which powerlessness, claustrophobia, entrapment, and brutality are concealed.
Haunt makes no attempt to hide this subtext, but it doesn’t delve too deep either. Some viewers may find this problematic, but I thought it made sense. We don’t need detailed exposition about the hows and whys of the abusers – this isn’t a film about them. This is a film about surviving domestic abuse, about smashing through the duplicitous masks of abusers, and casting off the masks that victims and survivors sometimes have to construct.
It’s not giving too much away to reveal that the ‘haunt’ of the title is not supernatural in nature – the film’s own tagline is ‘Some Monsters Are Real’. So, if you are expecting a ghost story, or a cartoonishly fun Slasher, you’ll probably be disappointed. Haunt is fun at times, but it’s nasty too.
Overall, Haunt is a great little movie. It makes impressive use of its £5,000,000 budget and doesn’t waste a second of its 92-minute running time, striding from set-piece to set-piece towards its satisfying conclusion. Some might find the way it handles it’s subtext to be a misstep, but I thought it did what it needed and, while mine is the opinion of someone who has not experienced domestic abuse, it never felt exploitative. It is worth noting, however, that it’s written, directed, and produced entirely by men. Nevertheless, it’s depictions of domestic violence are sensitively handled, being implied rather than gratuitously shown.It’s probably not to everyone’s taste, but I liked Haunt. It’s much more than a simple slasher and I think it easily transcends the ‘torture porn’ genre, from which it takes inspiration. As you might expect from a collaboration between the writers of A Quiet Place and Eli Roth, it’s a strange melting pot of ideas and styles. It could have gone horribly wrong, but I think they mostly get the balance right, and there’s so much packed into every scene that, if you’re a fan of horror, then there’s probably something in it for you.
Rating: 3 out of 5