When it comes to horror cinema, there’s a fine line between delivering an obligatory mood of ominous dread and otherworldly terror, and resorting to hackneyed formula at the expense of novelty and lucidity. Haunt falls squarely on the latter side of that scale, proffering a ghost story composed of nothing more than the spare parts of genre forbearers, all of it stitched together so clumsily that it’s hard to comprehend how anyone involved thought the material—from word to word, incident to incident, scene to scene—made even the slightest bit of sense. It isn’t simply that the film, written by Andrew Barrer and directed by Mac Carter, indulges in the usual stock tropes, from stringy-haired female ghosts and floating ethereal specters to hidden rooms, shadowy lurkers, and schizoid montages of scary images accompanied by buzzing and whooshing audio effects. It’s that it assumes those clichés are all a horror audience craves, even if the events as a whole lack the slightest semblance of logic.
Haunt begins with a man using a bulbs-wires-and-dials contraption housed in an ancient box to communicate with his three dead children. Unfortunately, his séance unleashes a ghoul that possesses him and causes him to fall down a flight of stairs. Where did such a magical doohickey come from? Who knows! But it turns out the guy was the dentist husband of pediatrician Janet Morello (Jacki Weaver), the only member of her family to not fall prey to the evil spirits in her home. Janet’s tale is told via a familiar brand of scratchy old black-and-white flashbacks, and it provides background for the ensuing action, which concerns the house’s new residents, a family whose demographic makeup is, conveniently, exactly the same as the Morellos’.
The film’s nominal center of attention is troubled teenager Evan (Harrison Gilbertson), who befriends fetching neighbor Samantha (Liana Liberato) after meeting her in a snowy forest path where she’s weeping over the latest abusive smacks her drunken father has dished out. Soon, Samantha is regularly sleeping over at Evan’s house—his mom (Ione Skye) is totally cool with the arrangement—and messing around with the afterlife-telephone-box-device, unleashing a floating specter on herself, Evan, and his featureless (and narratively peripheral) relatives.
What follows is a protracted bit of de rigueur spookiness in which the ghost sporadically pops up to deliver jolt-scares that break up the monotony of dialogue so blunt and graceless, it verges on parody. The obviousness extends to the story, which—courtesy of an early flashback to Janet caring for a young mother’s baby—so telegraphs its eventual revelations that the film loses any sense of mystery. That, in turn, means the focus remains on the preternaturally dim behavior of the characters, who act like they’re in a fugue state. Periodically, they put themselves in harm’s way and/or blissfully ignore warning signs simply because the plot requires them to be in peril. It also shines an undue spotlight on the one-note performers, with Gilbertson and Liberato exuding no chemistry or charisma, Skye delivering lines with almost stunning flatness, and Weaver making intermittent appearances to flash a blatantly crazed smile. She’s so clearly a demented Doctor Dearest, Haunt winds up being memorable only for its absence of subtlety or surprise.