Haunt is an indy horror film from Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, writer’s of last year’s unique hit “A Quiet Place”, and produced by horror guru Eli Roth. Beck and Woods are also directing this time around, and they do one hell of a job.
I attended a screening of Haunt at the Imax theater here in Davenport, Iowa, where the directors grew up and honed their craft, and was fortunate to see a Q and A afterwards. Beck and Woods talked about drawing inspiration from the local haunted houses that pop up here every Halloween, especially across the river in Moline and Rock Island, and how fascinated they were by the volunteers who sign up to work at these attractions. Tattoo artists, mechanics, guys and girls from every walk of life. They’re united by a shared love of Halloween. Here in the Midwest, Halloween is more than just a holiday. It’s a feeling. It’s a scent in the air. It’s a palette that weaves through everything from the vibrant falling leaves to the crisp night skies to the endless acres of dried browning corn. And it’s the elaborate home displays people design.
Haunt is a tribute to the Midwest Halloween as much as it’s a take on haunted house horror. Set in Illinois, a group of 20-somethings looking for adventure decide a random haunted house on the road is the perfect way to spend an October night. They go along with the creepy clown curator, hand over their phones, and sign “release forms” because hey, it’s a Midwest haunted house promising a legit experience. These kind of places are all trying to top each other and push boundaries, so no worries, right?
The film is well-paced for the most part and takes its time pulling the characters and audience into its gruesome premise. The geography of the house felt clear and defined instead of a hodgepodge of scary sets, and there’s even a map at one point that helps solidify that image without slowing things down. The setting really is a character here, and the directors light it well. As the tension escalates, expect unique traps, gruesome kills, and practical effects that would make Tom Savini proud. The sound effects really popped in the theater, and I appreciated the director’s restraint in not bombarding us with jump scares. There’s also a disturbing cast of side villains, my favorite being “the Devil”, played by Damian Maffei, who delivers one of the creepiest lines in the film.
Speaking of characters, to me the three standouts are Harper, Bailey, and the disturbing clown curator himself. There’s a mystery behind the Clown that’s slowly unveiled, in dialog, body language, and some quick visual clues. Local actor Justin Marxen embodies the role well and never goes over the top. As a result, we’re nervous each time he appears on screen.
Harper is our lead, an abuse victim who wants nothing to do with any of this haunted house nonsense, but goes along because her roommate Bailey and the rest of the bunch want a good scare. Right up front I’ll say Lauryn Mcclain steals the show as Bailey. She gets some of the best dialog and makes it look natural. The rest of the cast also delivers, with diverse personalities like Andrew Caldwell as Evan and Schuyler Helford as Mallory expressing the entire range of reactions regular people would have after realizing they’d walked into a real life horror show.
Let’s get back to Harper though, played brilliantly by Katie Stevens. What I really appreciated here was the extra depth laced into the character, giving her a true arc, a competing external and internal goal that you don’t often see in horror films. Harper wants to escape her abusive past and thinks the best way to deal with this is through avoidance. Avoid conflict. Avoid anything that might bring up traumatic memories. Throughout the film, the directors weave in quick flashbacks to establish this, often directly related to Harper’s present predicament.
This builds up to my favorite scene in the movie, a certain room in the house and a perceived hiding spot that creates a dark parallel to one of Harper’s most traumatic memories. She finally realizes what she REALLY wants is to confront her demons, not avoid them, and resolves her inner conflict in dramatic fashion. I mentioned this during the following Q and A and applauded the directors, because characters like Harper are so much more relatable when they’re fighting for something beyond just survival. The example I always think back to is Bruce Willis in Die Hard. He’s not just trying to survive, he’s trying to reconcile his marriage. Big thumbs up to Beck and Woods for including these layers, and even more praise to Katie Stevens for portraying them convincingly with minimal dialog.
A friend and I discussed the movie on the ride home against a fitting backdrop of lightning and storm clouds, and we both agreed it didn’t feel at all like an “indy” film. The camerawork and cinematography impressed me so much, I couldn’t help but find myself picturing Beck and Woods directing a future adaptation of one of my works in place of the typical “author’s fantasy director daydreams” like Peter Jackson or Robert Zemeckis. In all seriousness, I think they’ll be on a LOT of people’s radar soon, because the directing effort here deserves as much praise as the script, sets, and actors.
So Haunt is a solid film all around. It’s not perfect, and it’s not going to reinvent the genre, but it’s really not trying to. The audience gets what we’re promised – a kick-ass horror flick in a haunted house with some demented twists. Three stars. Thumbs up. 8/10. Go see it.
Haunt is available on the following digital platforms: