Haunt (2019)

2 out of 5

Directed by: Scott Beck and Bryan Woods

I’m okay with horror movie dumb (HMB) – the relative lack of intelligence displayed by horror movie characters in order to keep them from, like, not stabbing the killer once they’ve knocked them down, or to encourage them deeper into the house from which they should clearly be running. This is part of the genre, and it’s to be expected to a degree, even as we’ve gotten more meta and aware with the movies. Indeed, that “awareness” can be a boon – you can lean into it even more, or lampshade it, or set your movie in a classic mode that doesn’t question it, or purposefully go against the grain… as horror rules have been established, you have more options with using and abusing those rules.

I’m less okay with human dumb in movies, and this definitely isn’t limited to horror… though it lends itself to its more obvious offenses. This is when people just don’t act like anything resembling people: the way they talk, the decisions they make. There’s some crossover with horror movie dumb, but it’s all about context: HMB can get a pass if the scene merits a certain amount of immersion, because it’s fun or scary or both. Human dumb never works, though, and it often serves to break immersion immediately, thus even harming HMB.

Human dumb can be achieved through bad writing, bad editing, bad direction, and often all of the above. Haunt – which boils down to “what if a haunted house’s actors were actually murderers?” – is very, very, very human dumb in its midsection, which is frustrated by a pretty solid beginning and end, and then some great visuals / kills throughout. To that last bit, you can sort of sense the excitement in the planning stage, of having dark imaginations let loose when you can make the spooks in a haunted house lethal, and because the whole experience of such a house is to wander from set piece to set piece, this structural style – leading from one cool visual to the next – isn’t super forced. I also liked the way the gore was handled, which is in your face enough to get a grisly reaction, but the cuts away so it’s not especially indulgent. It’s a good way to balance blood ‘n’ guts with audience “friendly” horror.

The bookends of the movie also work because of their lack of exposition, giving us enough character context (final girl-ish Harper – Katie Stevens – is trying to get out of an abusive relationship; final guy-ish Nathan – Will Brittain – seems to understand enough of her situation to act as a balm during a friend-encouraged night out on the town) to make the inevitable trip to a haunted house off the beaten path work, and the banter amidst these friends / associates has a good, loose, realistic patter to it. The movie isn’t trying too hard to be especially funny, or clever, setting up character archetypes – these are just young adults, looking for some Halloween scares. And I even kind of liked how this style is reflected in the ending, which doesn’t hang around for too long trying to wrap everything up, and thus dodges some conventions while doing so.

But in the middle… sigh. Most of the dialogue in the middle is akin to someone waving a gun in a character’s face, and the character asking – with no irony – what shoes they’re wearing, as though this is very important for some reason, and the killer answers with a creepy one-liner, completely unrelated to said shoes; meanwhile, the camera never looks at the shoes, and this back-and-forth is treated as wholly logical. In a less runaround description, conversations do not follow even the loosest logical threads, horror movie dumb or otherwise. This carries over to actions, when our young adults realize the dangers of the haunted house and start to panic, making decisions that fall so far outside the territory of HMB that you can’t even understand them. And unfortunately, for all of the cool setup shots mentioned, there’s a lack of consistency within those shots – the same sensibilities playing out. Like, here’s a trap that affects a certain character, and then the trap is forgotten about a few seconds later. It almost feels like a movie made by two separate teams: one that cared about atmosphere, and one that was just, like, fuck it, we just need to get the kids to the house – team one, that’s your job – and then who cares what happens after that.

Unfortunately, that approach completely breaks any tension, spoiling a lot of the cool and creepy concepts the team visualizes, and making for one mostly duuuuumb movie.