New Horror Releases: Haunt (2019) - Reviewed

With the rise in popularity of “Extreme Haunted Houses” and Escape Rooms, it stands to reason that filmmakers would start taking advantage of the trend and mine it for ideas. We saw it earlier this year in the fun Escape Room and now, with Haunt, we’re getting the R-Rated take on it.

Written and directed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (writers of last year’s mega-hit A Quiet Place), Haunt follows six friends who find themselves at an “Extreme Haunted House” while looking for some late night, Halloween fun. To their shock (and less to ours), however, the haunted house is filled with very real real scares. The idea behind haunted houses of the “Extreme” variety is that you sign a release form, essentially allowing the actors to do whatever they want to you, within reason. So when our heroes are asked to place their phones in a lockbox until completion of the attraction, you can’t really fault them for any perceived stupidity. Sure, the place looks less than reputable and the clown standing out front is terrifying but it’s all part of the fun right? In a world dominated by putting on personas, especially on social media, a little real-world authenticity goes a long way.

Many of our best horror films succeed because they don’t waste time explaining their killer’s, or in this case killers’, motive. They drop you and the victims into a horrific scenario and get to work. The original Texas Chainsaw remains the standard for slasher films because of the randomness of it all. There’s something horrifying about not knowing your attackers. Random acts of violence happen every day. Sometimes “why me?” is a lot scarier when there really isn’t a “why.” Beck and Woods understand this well and their film wastes no time getting to what we’re here for. They give the cursory character introductions, a few specific traits that may or may not come into play later and we’re off. Even when we meet our killers, the sense of confusion makes it all the more horrifying. Especially when the masks come off.

The cast of characters fighting for their lives won’t win any awards for originality but that’s hardly why you see a slasher flick. Thankfully, the cast injects them with enough personality that they never feel too overly familiar. Beck and Woods also lean on their characters’ traits to creative effect. Our lead, Harper (Katie Stevens) is the reserved, quiet type who thinks this is a bad idea from the outset. She suffers from PTSD stemming from an abusive father. That PTSD leads to some white knuckle tension thanks to terrific editing, cutting her childhood in and out, as she’s stalked by the killers inside the attraction. Little touches like this go a long way from helping Haunt stand out from your typical slasher fare.

Standing out is important when you’re an entry into a sub-genre that has endless installments each year. And so, setting itself apart is where Haunt makes its mark  and propels it past so many others that come and go and into “watch it” territory. The atmosphere alone is worth giving this a look. The set pieces are all inventive, no room looking like the last. Cinematographer Ryan Tamul shoots each room in a way that doesn’t always reveal the horrors that await. A slow pan down to a floorboard covered in nails here, a static shot of Harper, frozen on a pathway while the room spins around her there, it all comes together to create a truly frightening center of gravity. A standout moment of set design is a room full of people covered in sheets. Are they all people? Or are they all mannequins? You’re filled with a delirious sense of dread as you anxiously wait for one of them to move. 

If there’s one thing Beck and Woods skimp on, it’s the gore. In a wickedly violent film, the violence is often left to a “THUD!” as we cut to the cast’s reaction. There’s gore to be had, make no mistake, but you’re often left wondering why they just didn’t go a little further in some scenes. When one scene has a face being ripped from its skull by a crowbar but another has a quick cut away from someone’s head being bashed in, it makes for an odd imbalance. There’s something to be said for the “less is more” approach to horror but in this case, “more” would’ve benefited the overall experience. 

Haunt is a mean and gnarly little slasher flick that feels both familiar and new all at once. The wheel is rarely being reinvented in slashers but when once comes along that’s as atmospheric and fun as this one, it more than deserves your time. Beck and Woods are gifted filmmakers who know this genre inside and out. As frequently horrific as Haunt is, one wonders what these two are capable of when they let loose completely. Until that happens, if you’re looking for something new this Halloween, this is one to watch. Moving at a perfect clip, Haunt dependably offers up some gruesome scares while still feeling like a journey you’ve taken before. It’ll fit right at home in between Hatchet and The Hills Have Eyes.

--Brandon Streussnig