“Haunt,” an early Halloween arrival that traps its collegiate protagonists inside an all-too-fatal holiday attraction, delivers a satisfying quantity of creeps and frights that more than compensate for the occasional lull. A step up from found-footage horror pic “Nightlight,” Scott Beck and Bryan Woods’ last directorial collaboration, this latest isn’t a beacon of conceptual originality, either. But that doesn’t matter much, as the writer-directors (co-scenarists of “A Quiet Place”) have a firm hold on atmosphere and demonstrate diverse enough suspense tactics to avoid a sense of slasher formula — while nonetheless hewing fairly close to that template.
With producer Eli Roth’s name as an additional lure, this above-average if not quite truly memorable shudder machine should do well among genre fans in a limited 10-city theatrical release Sept. 13, simultaneous with On Demand and digital launch.
Though shot in Kentucky, “Haunt” is set in Carbondale, Ill., an improbably named but actual midwest college town. It’s Halloween, of course, and things are already a little too scary for heroine Harper (Katie Stevens from MTV series “Faking It”): She has an abusive, alcoholic boyfriend who has recently given her a black eye and keeps sending angry text messages. Covering up they eye with makeup and trying to ignore his threats, she lets herself be persuaded into going out by bestie Bailey (Lauryn McClain), plus fellow housemates Angela (Shazi Raja) and Mallory (Schuyler Helford).
They land at a costume-party dance where Harper makes the acquaintance of nice-guy Nathan (Will Brittain), as well as his somewhat overbearing pal Evan (Andrew Caldwell). The six wind up looking for a haunted house amusement to end their evening with a few chills — even as Harper fears bad boyfriend Sam (Samuel Hunt) may be trailing them, providing cause for real anxiety.
Largely by accident, the group arrives at a warehouse-turned-extreme haunt off a lonely country road, where they’re promptly relieved of their cellphones and made to sign liability waivers. The frights get vivid quickly as a screaming young woman is seemingly branded by a red-hot poker — which they nervously laugh off as a good illusion. But such rationalizing goes out the window at the half-hour point, when one of our protagonists goes missing and another is seriously wounded. Things get much worse from there.
Mostly eerily silent, the villains are a half-dozen or so costumed figures with generic identities (Clown, Vampire, etc.), whose masks sometimes nod toward famous movie ghoulies (Leatherface, Ghostface from “Scream”). We get no intel as to who they are or why they’ve set up an elaborate Halloween haunt to lure victims for very real homicides. The ambiguity works; any straightforward explanation would likely dilute the menace of these robed, mute messengers of death committing heinous acts out of sheer malevolence. Suffice it to say that on the rare occasion when one of them does unmask, the visage beneath is not at all reassuring.
Likewise, “Haunt” maintains enough of a poker face to pull off the potentially hackneyed device of flashbacks in which we glimpse Heather’s childhood in an abusive home — no doubt the reason she got involved with an abuser like Sam (who does eventually join the proceedings, uninvited, to his inevitable great misfortune). This sort of hot-button backgrounding can seem tasteless and exploitative in a horror context. But the filmmakers lend their enterprise sufficient seriousness that it instead provides some emotional weight without souring the basic thrills.
Those scares are plentiful and run a gamut, making good use of the various creepy, claustrophobic, icky and unpleasantly surprising frights of an inventive haunted-house attraction. There are relatively few rote jump-scares, and quite a number of nicely unsettling moments. Violent peril is often present, but the film doesn’t dwell much on gore. Austin Gorg’s imaginative production design and Ryan Samul’s often luridly lit cinematography keep things visually stimulating. Editor Terel Gibson refrains from action overkill while maintaining a tense but often unhurried pace that rarely lets things lapse into slackness. Even the brief ebbs, however, help ratchet up the overall sense of dread.
The actors aren’t given much character complexity to work with, but neither do they portray stock cannon-fodder types, and all acquit themselves well. The same can be said for “Haunt” in general: It offers nothing particularly new, yet it fulfills the only requirement that really matters for this kind of movie — it’s scary.