Over the past several years, “extreme” haunted houses — attractions in which thrillseekers essentially pay to endure psychological torture — have evolved from niche curiosities into their own line of horror movies. Shudder’s Hell House series remains a prominent example while 2018’s Hell Fest was widely ignored. Haunt, from writer-directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (who cowrote last year’s hit monster flick A Quiet Place) and producer Eli Roth, had potential to be a great entry point for those intrigued by this brand of haunted-house horror. In actuality, Haunt is anything but: a dull, tension-free affair that can’t even fulfill the most basic expectations of the slasher genre.
Haunt announces how very seriously it wants you to take it right off the bat. Harper (Katie Stevens), our heroine, just wants to enjoy Halloween night with the group of stock characters she calls friends. But, let me tell ya, this girl has baggage: She’s running out of makeup to conceal the bruises her garbage boyfriend leaves on her face, while grating flashbacks and overwrought dialogue reveal she’s got big-time childhood trauma taking up residency in her psyche. The screenplay seems to believe saddling Harper with generic mommy issues can stand in for genuine character development.
Inevitably, Harper and her group of friends (which includes such slasher standbys as the vapid, promiscuous girl and the fat loser destined to die a virgin) wind up at a haunted house that promises an unmatched experience in terror. This is where Haunt transitions away from eye-rolling exposition to excruciating scenes in which characters wander in and out of cheap-looking rooms. If Beck and Woods displayed any command of mood or the actors’ performances, one could perhaps interpret the film’s second act as a sort of perverse meta-commentary — characters meander throughout various rooms looking as bored as the audience surely feels. It’s almost comically bereft of incident, coming off like B-roll footage of the actors familiarizing themselves with the set before filming began.
When the psychopaths lurking the house’s halls finally start to inflict damage, an early reveal behind their masks flaunts some of the only striking imagery to be found within Haunt’s walls. Once the kills start, the pace quickens to more of a haggard limp, although the deaths still lack enough novelty to justify this film’s existence.
Quality slashers are few and far between these days, faltering between unwatchable micro-budget exercises and watered-down studio releases. Haunt is the rare exception to fall in the middle of that spectrum, and the honest-to-god marketing behind its VOD release makes the creative failure all the more disheartening. Nevertheless, I have to root for filmmakers like Beck and Woods, who responded to the success of their A Quiet Place script by doubling down on their commitment to horror. It’s an admirable stance, even if Beck and Woods seemingly have a ways to go before they can achieve that same recognition as directors.