SXSW Review: 'Haunter'

Vincenzo Natali made a splash in 1997 with the crafty sci-fi/horror, “Cube,” and has mostly kept under the radar since, often taking a low-budget approach to high-concept scenarios and varying the genres of his output, running the gamut from tech-noir (“Cypher”) to existential comedy (“Nothing”). After the slicker, sicker and slightly more seen “Splice” failed to really break out for him in 2010, Natali has fashioned himself another prison escape movie in the vein of his most iconic work with “Haunter” -- albeit one that takes place on more metaphysical terms.

Lisa (Abigail Breslin) finds herself in a desperate situation: She continues reliving the day before her 16th birthday, with her family oblivious to the repetition, although she knows that none of them will live to see tomorrow anyway. Slowly, the cycle begins to fray, and between these inconsistencies and an increasing amount of otherworldly contact, Lisa begins to search, hope and fear for whatever lies beyond the impenetrable fog outside their door.

It’s a ghost story in reverse, a structure that empowers Natali and writer Brian King to re-appropriate the third-act reveal that similar films have conditioned us to expect, deploying it instead as the narrative's launching point. Concocting a story that feels like a cross between “The Lovely Bones” and 2009’s little-seen “Triangle,” Natali has made impressively literal use of teenage ennui, physically confining his disaffected heroine to her boring life at the point of her life during which she most yearns for escape. The premise is provoking and well-conceived, confidently moving things forward until the increasingly knotty rules of the film's universe eventually come to overbear the experience a bit in the homestretch.

To that end, Breslin gives a remarkably well-measured performance as she convincingly proceeds from clockwork angst to fearful curiosity and eventual empowerment, and Natali isn’t shy about letting her wide-eyed fright anchor the premise. Her fellow family members (played well enough by Michelle Nolden, Peter Outerbridge and young Peter DaCunha) are obligated to go through the motions for a good portion of the film, and when Stephen McHattie shows up as a mysterious menace, his gaunt face and gravelly voice do all the work, leaving Breslin to carve out a formidable lead performance opposite foils who are inherently limited in range by the repetitive nature of their roles.

As a harsh contrast to the well-polished madness of “Splice,” the sparse budget on this is often evident from scene to scene. The house itself is appropriately dressed with its perpetual ‘80s time period, but while much of the film is handsomely lit and well-framed, the end result is pretty irredeemably marred by the glaringly cheap appearance of Jon Joffin’s digital cinematography and the jarring limitations of certain effects shots. Perhaps a film with a less delicate conceit could better shrug off such flaws, but they have a devastating effect on Natali's high-wire act of a mystery movie.

Despite a fairly novel concept and Breslin’s solid work, it’s hard not to feel like “Haunter” continues the close-but-no-cigar tradition of Natali’s post-“Cube” endeavors. As much he cares to entertain heady concepts, it sometimes seems like they wind up every bit as trapped as his characters.

Grade: C+