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There has been a recent string of horror movies that take place around Halloween and use haunted attractions as their settings. I love it. I’ve always enjoyed haunts since I was a kid, and will try and go to one now even though I’m well past the age of being affected by them. It’s just fun. Now, joining the likes of The Houses October Built (meh) and Hell House LLC (surprisingly almost great) is Haunt, the new film by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, two of the guys who wrote A Quiet Place. And if you’re looking for something to satisfy your Halloween craving, this needs to be on your radar.
The setup is familiar but well done. Harper (played very well by Katie Stevens) has just broken up with her abusive boyfriend. Her friend Bailey (Lauryn Alisa McClain) decides to take her out on Halloween in order to take her mind off things. At a bar, they meet Nathan (Will Brittain), a handsome young man dressed as a baseball player. It’s not long before they’re joined by Angela (Shazi Raja), Mallory (Schuyler Helford), and Evan (Andrew Caldwell in a role that could have been obnoxious, but is actually genuinely funny). As they’re driving home, they’re seemingly followed by a truck. When they pull over, the truck disappears, but a bright sign saying “HAUNTED HOUSE” flips on and they decide to celebrate Halloween by scaring themselves silly.
Of course, though, this being a horror movie, it isn’t long before they seemingly witness a young woman wake up from some kind of unconsciousness and receive a brand to the face. Whether or not it’s real is unclear, and soon, the actors start behaving strangely and they try to escape the Haunt, where they’re seemingly trapped.
It’s not a mind-blowingly original idea by any means. In many ways, you’ve seen this movie before, but it’s in the execution that its strengths lie. Even though each character fits very neatly into a slasher trope (the jock, the final girl, the comic relief fat guy), the performances are far more grounded and realistic than you’d typically find in a movie of this type. As mentioned above, Andrew Caldwell plays the funny fat guy, and most of the time, this kind of trope makes my eyes roll. Here, though, the script keeps him talking just enough so that when he delivers his lines, they’re impactful. Caldwell’s performance helps a lot as well, as his tone is mostly conversational rather than grating.
The rest of the cast aren’t slouches, either. Will Brittain’s Nathan, in other hands, would have been a horny, empty-headed jock, but instead, he comes across as genuinely likable, and realistically resourceful in bad situations. Katie Stevens’ Harper gets the most chance to shine, though, with her undergoing a nice arc that touches on some pretty intense themes of abuse without getting exploitative towards the subject matter. She delivers a rock-solid performance and is more than capable of carrying this kind of movie on her shoulders.
I think I might be underselling the script here. It’s a traditional slasher script, but one that manages to avoid a lot of the annoying pitfalls of the genre WITHOUT being wink- wink self-aware about it. To me, the self-aware slasher sub-genre absolutely peaked with the superb You’re Next, and most other attempts at making meta slashers and subverting expectations come across as flat-out obnoxious, “haha aren’t we clever look at us.” Thankfully, Haunt takes a different approach in its small details.
The above picture is a classic horror scene. Character reaches into a hole, the arm gets caught, one of them pretends to get stuck and freaks out. In another slasher movie, this scene would have ever building music, crescendoing at the moment the character pretends to get their arm caught on something. In Haunt, the music is so subtle that it’s almost not there, and instead, the directors wisely let the actors do their thing. No startling music. No sudden jump cuts. In its place is real suspense and dread. It plays out naturally, which means when the movie ramps things up near the end of its second act, it feels earned.
And that, I think, is Haunt’s greatest strength. It knows we’ve seen this kind of story before, and instead of poking fun at itself and the audience, it subtly changes the scenes we expect to happen and relies more on the sets, costumes, and gorgeous cinematography to draw the viewer in (the first shot reminds me of the beautiful opening shot of It Follows, and I don’t make that comparison lightly). It all adds up to a slasher that feels familiar but respects the viewer with subtle setups and plenty of Halloween mood to spare.
Special mention should be made to the set design. The titular haunt is inventive and fun to explore as the movie goes on, with one particularly fun set piece, later on, involving an escape room. It’s clear that those involved with the movie either have experience with or passion for the art of the haunt. You can almost hear the set designers cackling with glee throughout the movie’s run-time. This, combined with the aforementioned great cinematography, gives the movie a world that feels whole and real.
I can see the ending being a sticking point with some people. It’s not unsatisfying, but the way everything is edited feels almost slapdash and rushed, leading to a feeling of “…well, that happened.” On a narrative level, I enjoyed it, but I almost think that the movie could have benefited from a few extra minutes of runtime to better establish everything that happens.
Haunt doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It does, however, refine it immensely. It’s a well-made, well-acted, and very spooky ride that respects the viewer enough to not give them the same eye-rolling jump scares associated with the sub-genre. It gladly joins my list of “movies perfect to view around Halloween” with its great sets, solid acting, and impressive filmmaking. Horror movies set around Halloween tend to be hit or miss, much like actual haunts in real life. This, though, is one that should satisfy anyone that’s let the Halloween spirit take over their brains.
Haunt premieres on Shudder on October 24th.
All images courtesy of Shudder. A code was provided by Shudder for the purposes of this review.