There’s something inherently simple yet effective in setting a horror film within the confines of an artificial horror experience, as not only is it an environment that many of us are familiar with, but it’s one where tension and terror are already heightened. Characters buying tickets for a haunted house experience expect to be frightened and put off balance, and that initial disorientation allows room for twisted thrills and surprises. 2018 saw two recent examples with the fun Hell Fest and the forgettable Blood Fest, but you need to dig back a little deeper for truly great entries including The Funhouse (1981), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), and The Houses October Built (2014). Those last three each do something unique with the premise, and for a while at least, the new film Haunt hopes to do the same.
Harper (Katie Stevens) is having a rough night evident as she applies makeup to cover the bruising gifted her by her boyfriend Sam (Samuel Hunt). Her friends cajole her into joining their Halloween celebrations, and the evening starts to look up when she meets a nice guy named Nathan (Will Brittain). They hit it off, and soon the pair head off in search of an extreme haunted house alongside their friends Bailey (Lauryn Alisa McClain), Angela (Shazi Raja), Mallory (Schuyler Helford), and Evan (Andrew Caldwell). They find the neon-lit nightmare factory off a remote road in the woods — always a good sign — and after signing the release form and depositing their cell phones in a lockbox, they head willingly towards their doom. Six masked figures run the haunt, and they’re planning on doing more than just scaring their latest guests.
The initial setup and premise behind Haunt seems simple enough, and it is as the friends enter the building expecting entertainment and find a fight for their lives instead, but writers/directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods tease some intriguing and fun ideas and threads suggesting much more is at play here. There’s the hint of a bigger world and more twisted explanation, but unfortunately the film chooses to drop those threads en route to a fairly definitive and uninspired ending reached on rails of stupidity.
We get some early spookiness as the haunted attraction does what it sets out to do by unnerving and creeping out its guests with an array of spiders, icky gags, and jump scares complimenting the silent men in masks — far from elaborate in design, but made creepier through the performances — and the film sets the tone even earlier as Harper’s fear of her violent boyfriend meshes with brief flashbacks to something from her past. She’s unnerved and suspicious from the very start, but they all realize together that something is amiss when one of their own is injured and another is killed before their eyes. From that point it’s life or death, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it by the actions of our protagonists.
They trust a masked character to help without insisting he remove the mask, and that’s just nonsense. They leave multiple weapons behind again and again — guns, pitchforks, knives, and more — as if they’re allergic to the idea of self-defense, and rather than face down a single threat they split and run more than once leading to their obvious demise. Fighting back seems anathema to them until the film’s third act is in full swing at which point the script works overtime to turn Harper into a bad-ass “final girl,” and even then the film lets her and us down by resorting to the eternally obnoxious horror trope of accidentally killing a friend. The lack of smarts displayed by the characters seems powered by the film’s desire to stick with their premise of creepy things typically found in these kinds of haunts meaning at one point, well after realizing that these people are trying to kill them, one of our heroes still insists on following the rules. She comes across a hanging bucket filled with nastiness and a note instructing her to reach inside, and rather than simply dump the bucket onto the floor she complies for a cheap gross-out moment. She’s dumb, it’s dumb, and it drags the whole experience down.
It’s a shame as there are elements at play here that engage and delight horror fans hoping for something more. Gore is limited, but we do get a gnarly death by hammer that will stick in your head for a while. Harper’s past and present both suggest trauma, but nothing is really done with it aside from implying that viewers should cheer her decision to stop letting others dictate her experiences. Even more intriguing is the reveal of the killers as their masks — ghost, clown, witch, vampire, devil, zombie — hide frightening truths of their own showing some cool design choices and ideas. As with Harper’s trauma, though, it never grows beyond mere idea and suggestion. There’s something akin to the world of The Houses October Built, but Beck & Woods are clearly uninterested in exploring what could have been a truly unsettling experience both here and through eventual sequels.
Haunt is never scary, but the mystery of it all intrigues well enough to carry viewers through to an interesting ending that doesn’t quite satisfy as well as it clearly thinks it does. Still, horror fans — and fans of extreme haunts in general — will find enough here to fill ninety minutes of their night. Just be sure to stay through the end credits for a female vocalist/piano cover of Rob Zombie’s “Dragula,” because why not?