'Haunt': Film Review

Delivers the goods.

'A Quiet Place' writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods return to directing with a Halloween horror pic starring Katie Stevens and Will Brittain.

With Friday the 13th closely preceding Halloween this year, horror releases are getting pushed up to mid-September, the better to take advantage of an extended genre season. Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, co-writers on A Quiet Place, seize this opportunity with a lethal little ensemble feature that packs quite a few thrills into a compact format.

Leaving behind the more refined styling of a big-budget horror feature, the filmmakers strive for an indie aesthetic that’s more visceral than intellectual, emphasizing sheer survival instincts in their tribute to B-movie horror classics. With a simultaneous theatrical and digital release, Haunt’s pedigree, underlined by Eli Roth’s participation as producer, should prove a draw for both devoted horror fans and the simply curious.

For most college students, Halloween provides a ready excuse for a night of complete excess, but Harper (Katie Stevens) seems barely aware that her roommate Bailey (Lauryn McClain) has plans for them to celebrate with friends at a nearby club. Instead she’s nursing a black eye from a recent assault by her boyfriend, Sam (Samuel Hunt), an alcoholic abuser whom Bailey views as totally toxic. Eventually she manages to persuade Harper to join her, along with best buds Angela (Shazi Raja) and Mallory (Schuyler Helford). At the bar, they run into classmates Nathan (Will Brittain) and Evan (Andrew Caldwell), who suggest that visiting some haunted house attractions would be a better alternative to club hopping.

So they pile into Evan's van, heading off into the dark of the southern Illinois October night, and stop at the first haunted attraction that they come across on an isolated rural road. At the entrance to an abandoned warehouse, a burly, creepy clown confiscates their cellphones and directs them inside without requiring payment, which might be the first indication that something could be amiss. The usual cobwebby rooms (adorned with live spiders), animatronic skeletons and crazy mazes greet them inside, but then a live-action set piece featuring a masked witch apparently torturing a young woman with a red-hot poker sends real chills through the group. Once they're separated, though, the attacks grow much more extreme as a series of demonically costumed killers begins terrorizing the group.

Before the night concludes, the college kids will also have to fend off a sadistic Satan, a ruthless ghost and a chainsaw-wielding zombie before again confronting the merciless witch and the demented clown. This assemblage of murderous maniacs recalls The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's multiple slasher lineup, in a series of nods to horror classics that also include Night of the Living Dead, Saw and Roth's own Hostel.

As with any smart tribute, there's the expectation of some original twists, and indeed Haunt finds a number of creative methods for dispatching its various victims, who aren't limited to the unfortunate Halloween revelers by the time that the fateful night concludes. Much of this originality is embodied by the ingeniously designed sets, a series of interconnected anterooms, inner chambers, disorienting passageways and even a child's bedroom, all luridly lit in ominous, saturated hues.

At first it's not quite clear whether Harper or Bailey will end up as the final girl, but repeated, sometimes overly contrived flashbacks to Harper's childhood with an abusive father and a victimized mother suggest that she may be the principal protagonist. Stevens' rather restrained performance reveals Harper as a reluctant heroine more concerned with the safety of her friends than even her own survival.

Brittain, initially introduced as a somewhat dim baseball jock, proves his worth as her determined sidekick when it comes to taking on their relentless assailants. Most of these killers are never unmasked, serving more as generic tormentors, but when a couple of them briefly reveal themselves, their appearance is even more repulsive than that of their menacingly costumed characters.

Distributor: Momentum Pictures
Production companies: eOne, Sierra Pictures, Nickel City Pictures, Broken Road Productions
Cast: Katie Stevens, Will Brittain, Lauryn McClain, Andrew Caldwell, Shazi Raja, Schuyler Helford, Samuel Hunt
Directors-writers: Scott Beck, Bryan Woods
Producers: Todd Garner, Mark Fasano, Vishal Rungta, Ankur Rungta, Eli Roth
Executive producers: Nick Meyer, Marc Schaberg, Josie Liang, Jon Wagner, Tobias Weymar, Sean Robins, Jeremy Stein
Director of photography: Ryan Samul
Production designer: Austin Gorg
Costume designer: Nancy Collini
Editor: Terel Gibson
Music: Tomandandy

Rated R, 92 minutes