Striving to live up to a villain’s late comment, “History doesn’t repeat itself. It rhymes,” Haunter hybridizes its many genre influences with initially clever success. Vincenzo Natali’s otherworldly saga opens with Lisa (Abigail Breslin) waking to a day that, it turns out, she’s lived countless times before. From a walkie-talkie message from her brother (Peter DaCunha) that functions as her de facto alarm clock to her mom’s (Michelle Nolden) demand that she do the laundry to her dad’s (Peter Outerbridge) incessant work on a car that just won’t start, Lisa is stuck in her own private Groundhog Day. Except that unlike Bill Murray’s exasperated weatherman, Lisa has a clue as to why she and her clan have been consigned to an infinite loop, even if her relatives don’t want to admit it: They’re dead.
Those Sixth Sense circumstances are also made plain by the fact that their house is enshrouded in mist, they can’t reach anyone else on the telephone (it’s all static), and everything and everyone seems to be cast in a ghostly pallor. Why Haunter is set in 1985—resulting in nods to Ronald Reagan, Siouxsie And The Banshees, and Pac-Man—is anyone’s guess, but at least for its opening third, the film establishes its premise with little coyness. Recognizing that its audience will know it’s being derivative, Brian King’s script doesn’t waste energy playing games about the fact that it’s somewhat blatantly synthesizing the aforementioned Bill Murray comedy and M. Night Shyamalan thriller. That bluntness proves for a time mildly refreshing, even once further elements are borrowed from Coraline (notably, a tiny locked door found behind a washing machine) and Silent Hill (in its encompassing fog).
Regrettably, while Haunter is initially intriguing, teasing various reasons that Lisa might be trapped in this recurring hell (and, moreover, why she’s the only one who’s aware of it), it soon proves incapable of unraveling its conceit, except through excessively convoluted means. That process begins with the arrival of a nameless pale man (Stephen McHattie) who warns Lisa to quit investigating her situation—specifically, the strange noises and shadowy figures she intermittently notices. As in his most accomplished work, 1997’s Cube, Natali’s sleek, ominous direction generates tension via drama situated in enclosed spaces. Yet his use of soft-focus lighting, buzzing and screeching soundtrack noises, and strobe lighting soon becomes so incessant that they turn the proceedings silly rather than suspenseful.
The more the revelations mount, the more the material becomes tangled in its own otherworldly rules, not to mention overburdened by shout-out overload, replete with McHattie’s undead specter and a narratively crucial basement furnace that both tediously call to mind A Nightmare On Elm Street. After performing many narrative backflips in an attempt to lucidly resolve things, Haunter eventually settles for half-baked uplift that renders much of what came before ridiculous and nonsensical. In the process, it disappointingly wastes the talents of McHattie, whose scraggly-and-sexy cigarette-smoking menace deserves a far scarier vehicle than this too-goofy ghost story.