Jeff York

“Haunt” Conjures Up Fresh Scares in Its Familiar Setting

“Haunt” Conjures Up Fresh Scares in Its Familiar Setting
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The new horror movie Haunt starts with a simple, yet potent premise. Its setting is one of those makeshift haunted house attractions that pop up in vacant storefronts or suburban lots around Halloween to challenge customers to “survive” its maze of scares. The college kids who enter the one in this film have no idea just how much pain will go into the painstakingly real thrills and chills they’ll soon be experiencing. The house’s positive Yelp rating that says “all proceeds go to the Red Cross” is lost on them, but the cheeky line will not be lost on a savvy audience.

This frightener has a lot that will be familiar to horror fans, starting with its “final girl” lead. Katie Stephens plays Harper, a morose college student with a neglectful boyfriend and painful memories of her unhappy home. She has no desire to participate in Halloween, but her girlfriends drag her out for the night anyway. Her BFFs are Angela (Shazi Raja), costumed in scrubs, the flapper-dressed Mallory (Schuyler Helford), and Bailey (Lauryn Alisa McClain) essaying the proverbial sexy kitty.

At a local watering hole, Harper meets Nathan (Will Brittain), another reluctant partier, hastily dressed for the occasion in his college baseball uniform. He pulls up Harper’s scarlet hoodie to get her into the Halloween spirit by telling her she’s Red Riding Hood. Indeed, it won’t be long before Harper, and her buddies run into some big, bad wolves awaiting them at Haunt, a horror house attraction in the middle of nowhere. Boisterous bud Evan (Andrew Caldwell), with a Haunt flyer in his hand, rescues them all from the boring bar and drives them out to the boonies.

Katie Stephens

As they pull up to the location, a tall man wearing an ugly clown mask is standing there to greet them. He says nothing, acting perfectly ghoulish, even when they try to chat him up. The kids are handed instructions by their host, and they read aloud the instructions. All customers must surrender their cellphones, sign a liability waiver, and agree to play along with whatever the ‘cast’ inside acts out. Savvier kids would pass, especially having to – god forbid – give up their cellphones for 30 minutes, but these students are game, so they go along with it all.

The place has a ramshackle, Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe, but that only adds to the challenge for these partiers. Once inside, the scares do come fast and furious. Skeletons pop out of walls, hallways narrow, and lights go out left and right. The ‘ghouls’ make it all the more immersive, as they’re all shrouded in oversized tunics and creepy masks. Before long, one tableau shows a crazy witch searing a hot poker into the face of a screaming co-ed. The six friends wonder if there’s more to this performance art since it seemed so real. Nonetheless, they forge on, still willing to play.

We’ve all seen horror movies like this before where the naïve teens get in deeper and deeper, failing to read the signs pointing to real menace and mayhem, but the fun of them comes in how filmmakers freshen such tropes. Fortunately, writer/directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods are the guys who delivered the exquisite scares in their script for A Quiet Place back in 2018, so they know how to revitalize the genre. Time and time again, their film zigs when you think it’s going to zag, and that keeps us on our toes, as well as on the edge of our seats.

Andrew Caldwell and Katie Stephens

Especially in the last 40 minutes, Beck and Woods conjure some surprising bits and scares that most won’t see coming. The students will show more smarts, the villains will be revealed to be quite unique, and many of the house’s traps will genuinely disturb. Best of all is the consistent sense of dread throughout. The directors milk their claustrophobic setting for all its worth and don’t skimp on vivid gore either.

Where Beck and Woods don’t succeed as well is in fleshing out all of their six protagonists. Stephens is compelling as Harper, and she gets a good backstory, plus wise-guy Evan is a hoot, but the girlfriends are interchangeable and not particularly interesting. Mallory has an aversion to spiders, but that’s essentially the only trait she gets to play. Perhaps Beck and Woods are riffing on all those faceless sitting ducks lined up to be mowed down by the likes of Jason, Michael, and Freddy back in those 80’s slasher movies, but their characters in this decade should have more personality.

Frighteners like this, updating the sub-genre of slasher horror, succeed by how many scares they can deliver and how many tried-and-true tropes they can stand on their heads. This one succeeds admirably on most fronts. Sure, we’re often way ahead of the dolts fumbling and stumbling through the dark, but more often than not, the filmmakers are ahead of us in finding new ways to enliven the journey. Haunt is a brisk and stimulating ride, one you’ll likely come out of feeling spooked and quite satisfied.

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