Vincenzo Natali is one of those genre filmmakers who has the rare ability to inspire loyalty in his small but vocal fan base by maintaining an aura of utter fearlessness. The director of ingenious, high concept doodles like "Cube," "Cypher," and most importantly, the envelope pushing, outrageously underrated "Splice," can literally go anywhere or do anything. Unlike his contemporaries, Natali isn't happy to ever be pigeonholed or pinned down. You go to his movies not because you know what to expect, but because what you end up seeing is so unexpected. All of this makes "Haunter," his new "reverse ghost story," one of the bigger disappointments of the South by Southwest Film Festival thus far – a dull, repetitive, utterly confounding chiller that had the usually uproarious SXSW midnight crowd as quiet as church mice.
"Haunter" starts out promisingly enough, as we watch a young girl Lisa (Abigail Breslin), seemingly in the '80s, go about her daily routine. Her mother (Michelle Nolden) asks her to do the laundry, while her father (Peter Outerbridge) works on the car and her little brother (Peter DaCunha) plays with an imaginary friend. Nothing is all that spooky, at least not initially, besides the fact that the house is surrounded by a soupy white fog reminiscent of Frank Darabont's "The Mist," which prevents all of the family members from leaving the house. Unlike "The Mist," there aren't any monsters in atmospheric discharge – what's more unsettling is what's going on inside the house.
Lisa is starting to get an overwhelming sensation of déjà-vu, that the repetitiveness of her everyday life isn't just the product of her being a teenager, but rather that her life is on a continual loop. And what's more – she thinks she's figured out the reason why – that she and her entire family are dead. And for a while at least this concept is kind of fun. It's not exactly new material ("The Others" covered similar ground, far more elegantly) but the approach, at least, is somewhat novel – using the boredom of being a hormonal teenager as a metaphor for the never-ending dullness of sticking around after you’re dead. One particularly great moment involves a montage where Lisa goes through the same routines, seemingly the only member of her family who is aware of the situation.
Of course, the normalcy is broken one day by the appearance of a menacing figure, known only in the credits as The Pale Man (Stephen McHattie), who warns Lisa that if she keeps poking around, great harm will come to her family. What Lisa asks, and what the filmmakers (including screenwriter Brian King) never explain, is how exactly harm can come to someone who is already dead. What the visit by The Pale Man does, instead, is really kick Lisa's investigation into what is going on with her family into high gear – she starts crawling around in places she probably shouldn't, including tiny corridors that open up into dust, skull-strewn mausoleums. She also tries to have a kind of inside-out Ouija board conversation; this time she's attempting to contact the living.
It's here that the movie becomes hopelessly convoluted. Before the screening, Natali described the film as "mythological" and "lyrical," which, in this case, translates into "not making a lick of sense." The avenues could have been enthralling, although the introduction of the idea that the house is being haunted on top of itself (kind of like the ghost story version of the multiple planes of reality in "Inception") goes absolutely nowhere and adds an unnecessary "murder mystery" element to a movie that already feels both hopelessly crowded and totally bare. There are other wrinkles introduced as well, and we're pretty sure some idea about possession, too, with The Pale Man a kind of supernatural serial killer who has stayed in the house after his death, killing off family after family who has dared to stay put.
There are long stretches of the movie where literally nothing happens, and Lisa is just crawling around and digging up carpet and trying to put the pieces together. We're all for "deliberate pacing," but this is better described as "patience testing." None of the spark or verve that is present in Natali's other films, including the often imitated "Cube" (which has inspired everything from the first "Resident Evil" film to the entirety of the "Saw" franchise), is present here. It's as dusty as a Victorian ghost story without any of the actual scares. And what's truly depressing, especially after "Splice," one of the more openly confrontational movies released by a major studio in recent years (one that challenged gender roles and made audience members of either sex cross their legs in discomfort), is how timid and apolitical "Haunted" is. The scenario is ripe for metaphoric embellishment but Natali chooses to leave it alone. He probably thinks he's doing something that is both classical and irreverent, flipping the ghost story on its ear. But instead it's utterly unconvincing and not scary in the slightest. And maybe that's Natali being unexpected again – no one could have known he would make a movie this bland. [D]