Well, now that that’s taken care of…
November 9th, especially one right after an election week that makes Halloween seem like two months ago, is not necessarily the optimal time to review a movie that takes place on Halloween. But I felt this particular seasonal viewing was strong enough it should be entered into the record.
The title HAUNT doesn’t refer to ghosts, but the term for “haunted houses” or horror mazes that have grown in sophistication and popularity in recent non-pandemic years. There seem to be many of them in the L.A. area, judging from the horror podcasts I listen to, and I think there’s a documentary about them. They’ve evolved from the old fake spider webs and a guy jumping out in a Leatherface mask to “extreme haunts” where you have to sign a waiver because they’re really going to try to make you uncomfortable. This is a film about a group of college age friends who end up at one of those places after a Halloween party. They don’t know they’re in a horror movie, but we do, so we’re more tense than they are waiting to find out which danger is not fake.
There are a bunch of similarly themed and named movies of recent vintage – this is the 2019 American one with a clown mask on the poster. I didn’t know until afterwards that writer/directors Scott Beck & Bryan Woods are the guys that wrote A QUIET PLACE.
It’s Halloween and instead of putting on skeleton makeup or something Harper (Katie Stevens, POLAROID) is just trying to paint over a black eye. Her roommate Bailey (Lauryn Alisa McClain, Step Up: High Water) is a just-put-on-cat-ears type of Halloween celebrant, but she’s also a good friend who gets Harper to break up with her abusive boyfriend Sam (Samuel Hunt, UNBROKEN: PATH TO REDEMPTION) and go out with their friends Angela (Shazi Raja, BRAD’S STATUS) and Mallory (Schuyler Helford, Anger Management) and they meet a hunky guy she obviously likes named Nathan (Will Brittain, EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!, the young version of John C. Reilly in KONG: SKULL ISLAND) and his friend Evan (Andrew Lewis Caldwell, M.F.A., DON’T SLEEP, THE MATRIX 4!?), a deliberately obnoxious wiseguy character who somehow won me over despite how much he reminded me of T.J. Miller.
Of course this is a standard setup and the characters all seem pretty “basic,” without apparent interests beyond getting drunk with friends and meeting boys… but I think they feel real. There’s a genuine and relatable dynamic with the tipsy girls hanging onto each other, the way they all pile into a car together and drive around with an idea to go to a haunt, some of them less interested than others but going along with the group, none of them having any idea which one they should go to. The feeling of it, if not the specifics, brought me back to the fun, aimless nights of that age.
The haunt they end up at doesn’t seem exaggeratedly ambitious. It’s built into a standard location, with modest means, doesn’t seem expensive. (Admittedly the one scare that got me did not seem actually do-able, and maybe was in the character’s imagination.) If anything it’s probly less detailed and themed than a real one would be, but that’s assuming it’s made by people interested in entertaining guests, rather than killing them. The friends end up split up on different routes that find them following crude painted instructions, reaching into holes to touch things, crawling through narrow tunnels, noticing weird things like oil dripping from above.
At one point they watch from behind glass as a character in a witch mask (Terri Partyka, “Child Protection Agency Worker #3 [uncredited],” ALEX CROSS) drags a screaming woman out and seems to kill her. They don’t all enjoy the show, but assume it’s not real. We’re not so sure. After some injuries they start to believe the danger is real, but have a hard time finding an exit.
For the most part this works just because it’s a pretty straight forward premise, solidly executed. It doesn’t let us in on more information than what the protagonists have, so there’s always an unsettling uncertainty. Yes, we think they probly just saw somebody get executed for real and took it for a very disgusting show, but we don’t know. Then we think they saw their own friend get the same treatment, and they think so too. But when a worker (Chaney Morrow, DARK WATERS, WRONG TURN: THE FOUNDATION) tells them no, she’s waiting for you outside, it’s very possible that he’s telling the truth, or maybe that he’s wrong but he doesn’t know it because he really is just a regular guy they hired and not somebody who’s in on the killing. He seems very convincing to me. But he hesitates when they start questioning him, and we’re staring at a plastic ghost mask, unable to fully evaluate him. This movie definitely gets alot of mileage from staring at masks and not being able to ascertain the humanity behind them.
(In the real world I feel like of course they should believe that employee, and I don’t like how they’re talking to him! But this is a movie. Different rules apply.)
I think for me the extra bit that pushed this into the excellence zone has to do with the masks the haunt employees all wear. They’re cool looking plastic masks in the tradition of the old Ben Cooper type costumes, each representing a basic category like clown, ghost, witch, zombie. I took them with a grain of salt – it didn’t seem believable to me that a real haunt of any kind would be themed around those type of masks (unless, like the movie, they were custom-made as an artistic choice based around a nostalgia for and fascination with the aesthetics of those type of mass-produced products, and an idea that it would be ironic for actual scary people to wear them). I think real people in these type of places can’t resist the temptation to go over the top with masks and makeup. For example, on the left here is the clown from HAUNT, and on the right one from a famous place in San Diego called McKamey Manor:
But that’s okay, I accepted the stylization. I like it better.
Eventually – SPOILER – we start to see them without masks. First the devil, who seems to be one of those “modern primitive” types with facial piercings, tattoos and body modification to somewhat resemble a devil underneath the mask. As we see more of them we realize they’ve all been surgically made to roughly resemble their masks, and it’s very disturbing! The closest thing we get to an explanation is a reference to the haunters having to kill someone to “earn their face.” Whatever kind of gang or secret society or whatever this is, it goes above and beyond on the crazy shit. Something this strange, with this little explanation, implies a scary unknown world out there, the kind of thing that would maybe be better not to know about.
A smaller SPOILER thing that I liked is how we’ve got this abusive ex-boyfriend out there, possibly following them, initially a suspect in whatever unknown horror we’re headed toward. But as things progress it doesn’t seem to really fit that he could have anything to do with it, so I like that we get to have a little fucked up justice/comic relief by him making the mistake of following them to this place. It’s hard out here for a stalker.
Between A QUIET PLACE and HAUNT, that’s two “good simple idea, well executed” successes for Beck & Woods. We can always use more of those. I’ll keep my eye on ‘em.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.