Let’s start horror month off early with Haunt, a feature now on VOD and in (a few) theaters that was written and directed by the creators of A Quiet Place and produced by Eli Roth. The plot follows a group of friends (as it always does) on Halloween (as it always is) who travel to an “extreme” haunted house and are forced to face their darkest fears (but not really) as the night turns deadly and they come to the horrifying realization that some nightmares are real.
I have said this before on this site and I will say it again: this concept has been done several times recently: in the films Extremity, The Houses October Built (and sequel), Hell House LLC. (1,2 and 3), Blood Fest, Hell Fest, and in Channel Zero: The No-End House. It was incredible in The No-End House (which, if you haven’t watched the Channel Zero horror series, stop what you are doing right now and watch it!) and just ok in Extremity, and I could take or leave Hell House and the Fests, so I wanted to see what new take and new voice these guys would bring to this concept.
Full disclosure, while I didn’t love A Quiet Place (though I respect the crap out of the writers and John Krasinski for his huge feature debut) I am not biased against these creators at all and truly was excited to see what they could bring to this tale.
Also, Eli Roth’s involvement doesn’t really do a lot for me, as I have been suckered into watching a couple of not-so-great films that slapped his name on the credits as “producer” and got a VOD release (The Stranger, here’s looking at you) That said, much like Thanos, Eli Roth is inevitable, by which I mean he makes a lot of films and continues to produce new material. And, for better or worse, he is at the very least consistent in terms of you know what you are going to get with an Eli Roth film.
Now, and I do have to say this, it was a little harder to find Haunt than I was anticipating. Haunt is the title of another feature, a 2014 IFC Midnight Release, and I had to sift through a lot of “Did you mean The Haunting in…” results before I finally found the specific Haunt that I was looking for.
As a professional reviewer, this was my job and so I took the time to search through several different libraries (including the Microsoft Store, Amazon Prime Video, etc.) to find this title so that I could review it. However, many casual viewers will likely not take the time to go over dozens of titles (or multiple apps/stores) before they find your film, so remember that your title is just as important as your eventual script: it is a first impression and can be how your feature lives or dies in the hands of a reader or an audience.
So, with all of that out of the way, how was Haunt?
Our story starts with the construction of one of these “Extreme haunted houses” – which are a real thing and sometimes include everything from being slapped by the actors in the haunted house to being forced to eat cockroaches. And people line up for the chance to experience this. I’ll let you decide how you feel about that.
We then travel to campus housing where two of our heroines, Bailey and Harper, are getting ready for a Halloween party when their house gets… pumpkin-ed? I didn’t know that throwing old, rotted pumpkins at someone’s house was a thing. That seems like a pretty inefficient way to vandalize someone’s home. I’m just saying, in my day, it was eggs and toilet paper all the way.
Bailey thinks that it was Harper’s boyfriend who threw the pumpkin, but I don’t think we ever get the answer to this mystery: who threw the pumpkin? Who is taking the time to lug a bunch of pumpkins around and then lazily toss them towards homes on campus? What did that person want? A hug? A friend? Is this some sort of weird Halloween tradition? Or is it something more sinister? The world may never know.
Anyway, Harper’s boyfriend is abusing her because he is a violent alcoholic… which is about as deep as the character development in this film goes. We know her boyfriend is a problem because Bailey tells us that he is and then tells us (they don’t show us until later) that Harper has mysterious bruises on her face. This whole scene is awful and very on-the-nose. Don’t do this. There are better ways to give this information and, another thing, show us, don’t tell us!
The girls go out partying and get taken to an extreme haunted house by two of their guy friends (Baseball Hat and Human Centipede, our comic relief – that vague physical description is really as much as you need to know about either of them)
Baseball Hat hits on Harper and we find out that he is actually a baseball player for the college team who got hit in the face by a bad pitch. This pitch must have been so hard that it knocked all of the charisma out of Baseball Hat because he is as stiff as a board in the film. Oh yeah, and the bad pitch that smacked him in the head also is causing him to ride the bench all season which really doesn’t matter to our plot in any way. I kept waiting for a “I coulda been a contender!” speech, but sadly never got it.
Oh, and Baseball Hat has a baseball bat which he carries around and it gave me flashbacks to Signs and Joaquin Phoenix —
But he decides to leave his bat in the car. This is literally the definition of Chekhov’s Bat, as we are introduced to the bat in the first act and know that it will be swung (likely at a Masked Killer… definitely at a Masked Killer) by the third act.
There are also other female friends dressed up in costumes (just bodies to be killed off): the Doctor, the Flapper, and the Slutty Cat (Bailey).
The acting is pretty terrible all around. That is all for that note, as it has to be seen to be believed.
But, honestly, who cares? You only care about the kills and if this film delivers on the scares, so does it?
As we continue on with our thin plot, Harper keeps getting creepy texts – from someone who we assume is her boyfriend. Also, someone in a red robe who looks like they are dressed as one of the creatures from The Village keeps following her around and being creepy, though this literally never comes back in any meaningful way.
It only takes about 12 to 14 minutes for the group to get to the Haunted House, but the film really drags and it feels like hours.
Also, they literally pick the Haunted House by Googling “Haunted Houses Near Me” and then pull off to the side of the road and see a random sign advertising a Haunted House that is, and I am not making this up, literally “off the beaten path.”
Also, also, apparently, according to one of the girls, the Murder-House they are going to has one positive Yelp review and apparently all proceeds are going to charity. Say what you will about Masked Psychopaths, but it’s always nice when serial killers give back to their community.
Anyway, once they are at the haunted house, they have to read the rules:
- No phones.
- No touching the actors.
- Follow the prompts.
- Sign the liability waiver.
There may have been more, but those were the rules I caught and really all you need to know.
Also, a lot of jumpscares in this piece, which you know are my least favorite. Even worse, the dialogue is set so low that you have to keep the volume cranked up to hear what the characters are saying. Or put subtitles/closed captioning on, which I eventually did.
In one of the rooms our friends find an obviously not-part-of-the-attraction teen getting branded by a Masked Killer, but decide to continue onward with little-to-no discussion or pause because… movie.
They split up (as you always should in dangerous situations) and one group, including Harper, Flapper and Human Centipede, have to go through a maze, while Baseball Hat, Doctor and Bailey go through a room with trick mirrors and fake body parts.
This sequence takes so long you’d think you were watching It Chapter 2 where the main cast breaks up so each character can have their own spooky moment. I’m just saying, there are better ways to effectively create your horror set-pieces.
As the teens move deeper into the Haunted House, the rooms and scares get more and more intense (for them, not really for the audience) and include things like:
— A room where the group has to stick their arms into holes to feel “body parts” but find that when they reach their arms in, someone, or something, is behind the wall and might just take their fingers off if they reach too far inside.
— A room where they are forced to watch one of their friends get brutally murdered by a Masked Stranger.
— A room full of identical mannequins covered in sheets. You have seen this done before in Batman Begins (kind of), Halloween (2018) and many other horror pieces.
— They also meet a friendly Ghost who gives them keys and shows them the way out of the nightmarish house… but does he show them the right way or does he have more sinister intentions for the group?
— About halfway through, the group splits up for a second time as Comic Relief (Human Centipede) decides to crawl back through the tunnel and try to get their phones to call for help.
— By the way, these writers also totally use the EXACT SAME scene in which someone steps on an exposed nail. It was cool the first time in A Quiet Place, but when you do the same scene with a similar setup twice, back-to-back, it feels like a gimmick and like you don’t have any other tricks up your sleeve(s).
— They also rip-off a scene in The Collector with a tar-covered floor that pulls skin off of the victim when he/she pulls their hand (or body part) away too quickly.
— There is an effectively creepy moment later in the film as Harper explores a room with hidden messages scrawled all over, with the last one reading: Something is hiding under the bed.
It is chilling, but it would be more effective if we cared about Harper at all.
One thing I do wish the film had followed up on is when the teens realize that they are in deep do-do, Harper remembers that, on the waivers, the group listed their addresses, parent’s phone numbers, and they also gave the Haunted House their credit cards and phones. Basically, if the people who run the Haunted House want to, they could destroy the teen’s lives.
There is something to be said for jumping right into the action and not spending too much time on building up characters that will just die in a little while.
However, that cuts both ways, because when the characters here were in dangerous situations, I just didn’t care at all. Plus, any time they later spent trying to make us feel for the characters just felt wasted and tedious because I just wanted to see more traps and more horror set pieces.
Another thing is that there are very few intense horror set pieces. I mean, they literally could have done ANYTHING with this premise, but they don’t choose to do very much at all and nothing that you haven’t seen before in similar films.
On the plus side, there are a couple of cool gore moments (someone gets their face pried apart by a hammer in one especially gruesome scene) and the killers do look kind of cool when they are unmasked, though, as stated above, we aren’t really given an explanation as to why the killers look this way (even under their masks) or what they are hoping to accomplish with their Haunted House from Hell.
I mean, this is a large-scale operation and there are at least five killers (that I counted: Blonde Chick, Devil, Helper, Mitch and Clown) but we never really get a who or why explanation.
The end is predictable and manages to be both anticlimactic and way too long.
The finale really just leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. When you want to have your characters escape the maze/trap/house, just have them escape – they don’t need to backtrack through the Haunted House and kill each and every single Masked Killer just to stretch the runtime out.
Finally, our heroine, Harper, gets absolutely no character arc or development, as what would normally be her defining arc (standing up to and leaving her abusive boyfriend and going back home to face her abusive dad) is solved both A. Off-screen and B. For her by one of the killers.
Now, I did like the very end, even though it makes no sense in the timeline of events and doesn’t work for the film at all. Harper gets a nice last line, but was it really worth ruining the film’s timeline and story up until that point?
This is one more point that I want to talk about: from the work that I have seen of these two men (Scott Beck and Bryan Woods) there is one specific flaw in their stories that they seem determined to make again and again and that is giving us a happy ending.
Now, normally, this isn’t a problem, however, because Beck and Woods are working in the horror genre (a genre with almost exclusively down-endings) they must go out of their way, even sacrificing logic and any narrative beats and rules that they have established in order to accomplish this.
Spoilers for A Quiet Place below:
Take the ending of A Quiet Place: the little girl manages to find a frequency on her hearing device that causes the aliens/monsters to stop, drop and roll.
So, they are telling us that the military never once thought to try using sound waves to fight these “sound-sensitive” monsters? Or that Jim, who was shown playing around with those hearing aids for who knows how long in his man-cave, never stumbled across that frequency? Or that the deaf girl, in adjusting her hearing aids, never once, accidentally hit that frequency? And what about all of the other hearing-impaired people on the planet? Did they just stop existing because the plot needed them to?
I could go on, but it won’t change the fact that the film is getting a sequel and still doesn’t make any sense if you think too hard about it.
Spoilers for AQP finished!
Mild Spoilers for Haunt —
The point is, in this film, they do a very similar thing in that the filmmakers go out of their way, breaking all established cannon and character creation done up to this point AND destroying their timeline in what could have been a limited-location horror taking place over the course of one night, in order to give their heroine a badass moment that is unearned, doesn’t fit the character and frankly, comes out of nowhere.
I still feel that there is an effective story that can be told with Extreme Haunted Houses and those who desperately search out the most extreme thrills, but this is not it. This felt like an early draft of a story that got pushed into production before it was ready and released much too late, after the concept had already been capitalized on by other creatives.
I would say SKIP IT for most viewers. This one is probably only for horror fans, and, even then, there are better horror features out there to spend your time on.
However, if you are a big fan of horror and/ or if you happen to catch this one on Netflix in the near future, I don’t think you will be disappointed, as long as you just sit back and enjoy and don’t think too hard about what you are watching.
(Also, The Captain really enjoyed this one, so prepare for a rebuttal in the comments, but don’t forget, The Captain also really enjoyed Mandy, so I’ll leave you to decide who is right here )
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