Imagine “Groundhog Day” as a haunted-house thriller, and you’re ready for “Haunter,” a modestly inventive variation on genre conventions that could attract a respectable audience in limited theatrical release and homescreen platforms. Director Vincenzo Natali (“Splice”) is more effective at sustaining clammy suspense than hiding all the holes in Brian King’s script. But top-billed Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) is effective enough to generate a rooting interest in the plucky protagonist of the piece, and to sustain interest when narrative logic turns fuzzy.
Breslin plays Lisa Johnson, a discontented teen whose surly exasperation grows progressively more pronounced as she realizes she’s the only one in her family who notices they’re reliving the same events — over and over and over again — that occurred while they were fog-bound inside their home one day in 1986.
Gradually grasping that something supernatural must be going on, Lisa starts to investigate the spooky sounds emanating from the basement and the air vents. The bad news: The house is haunted. The worse news: Lisa, her parents and her younger brother are the haunters.
And just when she’s ready to break the bad news to her loved ones, a creepy telephone repairman (Steven McHattie) drops by to tell her to keep her discoveries to herself.
“Haunter” has something to with Lisa’s periodic contacts with a nervous teenage girl (Eleanor Zichy) who’s living in the same house during the present day, and something else do to with the restless spirits of other girls who disappeared way back when the telephone repairman was younger, if not any less creepy.
Throughout it all, Breslin conveys all the spunky resourcefulness one would expect of a living-dead Nancy Drew, providing a center of gravity as Lisa drifts among decades while “Haunter” itself alternates between ghost story and murder mystery.
Atmospheric lensing by Jon Joffin (“Daydream Nation”) is a major plus for this Canadian-produced indie, which IFC Pictures picked up after its world premiere at SXSW.
Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Midnighters), March 13, 2013. Running time: 97 MIN.
Directed by Vincenzo Natali. Screenplay, Brian King. Camera (Deluxe color), Jon Joffin; editor, Michael Doherty; music, Alex Khaskin; production designer, Peter Cosco; costume designer, Patrick Antosh; sound (Dolby Digital), Stephen Marian; assistant director, Bruce Speyer.
With: Abigail Breslin, Stephen McHattie, Peter Outerbridge, Michelle Nolden, David Hewlett, Peter Dacunha, Eleanor Zichy.