Haunter: SXSW Review
South by Southwest, Midnighters (IFC Midnight)
Abigail Breslin, Stephen McHattie, Peter Outerbridge, Michelle Nolden, David Hewlett
Vincenzo Natali offers the ghost's side of the story in a sober, supernatural take on "Groundhog Day."
AUSTIN — Turning the tables on the haunted-house film by focusing on the fear and confusion of a girl whose post-death limbo may be terrifying some poor living family, Vincenzo Natali's Haunter is a love letter to ghost stories whose fresh angle should appeal to viewers outside the genre's base. Less twisted than Natali's last film, Splice, it's sufficiently novel to uphold his reputation as a filmmaker not content telling conventional fanboy stories.
For reasons she can't know, teenager Lisa Johnson (Abigail Breslin) is stuck in a Groundhog Day-like loop -- not only living the same 1985 day over and over, but doing so stuck with her family on a day so foggy no one leaves the house. Though she's aware of the repetition, no one else is: In a nice metaphor for no-end-in-sight adolescence, her attempts to explain to her parents that they've been cooking the same meal and assigning the same chore every day are seen as troublemaking nonsense.
Then Lisa starts hearing things, uncovering clues that point not to a poltergeist but to the possibility that she herself is dead. Breaking routine, a creepy "phone repairman" drops by, pulling her aside to say he doesn't care how she "woke up," but she'd better play dumb or her family will suffer. Dad develops a nasty temper out of the blue, scaring Lisa and briefly disrupting the house's repetitive cycle. And Lisa learns of a string of teenaged girls, stretching back to the '50s, who disappeared mysteriously.
Lisa's pursuit of the truth delivers most of the same supernatural suspense found in a traditional ghost movie, the creeping through attics and basements made spookier by the heavy-eyeliner gaze of Siouxsie Sioux, the New Wave chanteuse whose face is on the girl's t-shirt.
But the things Lisa learns give her a chance to take a more active role than usual in the story's resolution. Brian King's script may not answer every question it raises, but the connection it draws between this teen and other girls is emotionally and narratively satisfying, reminding us that every spirit inhabiting a haunted house started off as a mortal with problems -- usually heartbreaking ones -- of her own.
Cast: Abigail Breslin, Stephen McHattie, Peter Outerbridge, Michelle Nolden, David Hewlett
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Screenwriter: Brian King
Producers: Steven Hoban, Mark Smith
Executive producers: John Raymonds, Vincent Maraval
Director of photography: Jon Joffin
Production designer: Peter Cosco
Music: Alex Khaskin
Costume designer: Patrick Antosh
Editor: Michael Doherty
Sales: CAA, WildBunch
No rating, 96 minutes