Haunt isn’t the most obvious follow-up to the genre-redefining A Quiet Place, and yet the writers of that rather brilliant film have chosen it as, technically, their next project. Okay, so, in reality both scripts were written at the same time, but the way these films have been released is still funny — at least, to horror fans. Watch out for the fun nod to A Quiet Place that isn’t actually a nod but a sign these two, by their own admission, were convinced nothing was ever going to get made and were reusing material.
As its title suggests, Haunt takes place at an extreme haunt. Writer-directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods wrote it after realizing horror can just be fun, that it doesn’t need to be elevated (groan), and sometimes paying homage to your favorites, like slashers and John Carpenter movies, can be just as rewarding. The story kicks off in Illinois, at a drab campus dorm where our heroine, Harper (TV starlet Katie Stevens) is covering up the latest black eye from her abusive relationship with the unseen Sam (Samuel Hunt).
In an effort to cheer her up, Harper’s friends drag her out to a Halloween party where the rest of their group is filled out, including funny guy Evan (Andrew Caldwell) who’s dressed, as he explains, as “the first half of a human centipede.” There’s also some mild flirtation with Nathan (Everybody Wants Some!! star Will Brittain) when Harper hilariously mistakes him asking for a drink as a come on. The group eventually comprises four women and just two guys, which is a nice change from the typical ratio in these things.
Even before they get to the haunt (which is signaled via a sign appearing on the road seemingly out of nowhere), everything in Haunt is tinged with dread. Just like in the very best slashers, the flick highlights the scary elements of everyday life, the things we don’t normally notice because we’re too busy just getting on with things. Harper, in particular, sees danger around every corner because she’s used to feeling unsafe with her boyfriend. When a car drives down the road slowly after them, she assumes they’re being followed (whether or not she was right is left tantalizingly unclear).
The haunt itself, which was created and filmed at an abandoned dairy factory (a truly terrifying location for those of us with lactose intolerance), is the kind of low-rent establishment that offers a little tingle of extra excitement because it seems kind of dangerous (all proceeds do go to the Red Cross though, as one character notes, so that’s good). The group signs the standard wavier which, again, is scary in itself — though, here, there are none of those participation necklaces to allow performers to touch you, which suggests anything goes — and surrenders their phones, setting off immediate alarm bells for the audience.
Is it real? Is it fake? Does it really matter? Early on, it’s not exactly clear what’s so extreme about this particular extreme haunt (just like the new, extreme health science class in Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide) but soon, as expected, blood is spilled and characters start disappearing. There’s also a dude lurking in a red robe who clearly isn’t as friendly as he appears (the poster hints at a bunch of cool villains, and the movie definitely doesn’t disappoint in showing them all to us).
There’s a moment when one character puts her arm through a hole and emerges with a rubbish LOVE tattoo. Horrifying! Obviously, I’m kidding, her arm is actually sliced up but the tatt is distractingly terrible regardless (imagine a haunt that tortures visitors with terrible tattoos). The haunt in Haunt is both cool enough that it makes you want to visit it yourself, and unnerving enough (those damn chainsaw guys are the worst) that you know to feel worried for the characters who are stuck inside it. Even when they seem to have figured a way out, it’s obvious things aren’t going to be that easy for them.
Haunt is funny but not glib, which is a hugely important distinction in modern horror. Its cast of characters, all of whom are smart and likeable, is differentiated by funny guy, lady with way too many stories about her cousins, love interest, BFF, etc. They’re all fleshed out enough that we care what happens to them. The film gets darker and gorier than you might expect, and it’s never obvious who’s going to survive, either. Modern slashers sometimes rely on either nastiness or annoying meta commentary to put themselves over, but Haunt is a defiantly old school flick but with its feet firmly planted in 2019.
Last year gifted us the surprisingly great Hell Fest and Haunt actually uses a little bit of the same nursery rhyme, which is a funny little connection. Extreme haunts seem like fertile ground for horror movies but rubbish offerings like American Fright Fest or the burgeoning Hell House LLC franchise (lord help us) exemplify how easy it is to take this seemingly ideal premise and run it into the ground. Haunt, along with Hell Fest, suggests there’s life in the old slasher yet if we just take what’s always been great about the sub-genre and marry it to a modern setting.
Funny, frightening, endlessly entertaining, and with a whole host of horrible villains and genuinely likable characters, it’s one of the best horror movies of the year and a slasher all-timer in the making.
WICKED RATING: 9/10
Director(s): Scott Beck, Bryan Woods
Writer(s): Scott Beck, Bryan Woods
Stars: Katie Stevens, Will Brittain, Lauryn Alisa McClain, Andrew Caldwell
Release date: September 13, 2019
Studio/Production Company: Broken Road Productions
Run Time: 92 minutes