Following on the coattails of “The Conjuring” and “Insidious,” “Haunt” is a classical haunted-house thriller with perhaps little that’s out of the ordinary for the genre, but occasionally inventive execution. The winter-set ghost story follows a teenage boy (Harrison Gilbertson) and his new neighborhood crush (Liana Liberato) as they uncover the mysterious events behind the supernatural presence in the former’s new attic residence. Director Mac Carter pulls off a few truly creepy sequences on a low budget, and the film’s old-school approach, as well as the presence of Jacki Weaver in a key supporting role, may pick up positive VOD buzz before the pic’s limited theatrical release in March.
Things start out quite suspensefully in the opening sequence, as a father frantically communicates through an eerie vintage radio device before an unfortunate end; Carter’s careful shot choices recall those in “Poltergeist,” creating a thrilling sense of dread before the cold open escalates to a bloody climax. Things settle into something more familiar after that: a house known for its mysterious murders; the new family that moves in; and the slow reveal of the ghosts haunting its hallways.
The narrative centers on the teenage Evan (Gilbertson) and his romance with the neighbor across the woods, Samantha (Liberato) — whose abuse subplot is underdeveloped and a little unnecessary — as they explore the strange history of these ghosts, especially in connection to the one surviving member (Weaver) of the original family.
While the film (scripted by Andrew Barrer) is quite violent at times, its unexpected strength lies in the way it counters such horrors with a Spielbergian sense of coming-of-age wonderment. This tonal balance serves the actors well — Liberato and Gilbertson make the most of their archetypes, having a relaxed chemistry that feels reminiscent of “The Spectacular Now” — yet one wishes that “Haunt’s” dialogue and story beats ultimately went down a less predictable path.
As the film moves toward its big reveals, Carter begins to rely too much on jump scares and less-than-impressive special effects. While the ending does have a subversive tinge, the emphasis on a character-centered climax can’t help but disappoint when the characters feel so conventional.
Production designer Giles Masters delivers an elegantly creepy house, brooding and full of shadows. Reinhold Heil’s succinctly moody score plays a crucial role in many of the scariest sequences, and the cool visual tones of d.p. Adam Marsden, combined with the icy weather, make for some spooky atmospherics.