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.

This entry was posted on Monday, November 9th, 2020 at 11:22 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

11 Responses to “Haunt”

  1. I’m a massive fan of this movie and I think it’s well worth your time checking it out.

    Also, I’m curious how people feel about the ending which I love.

  2. I liked it a lot! I know some folks were down on the ending but I liked it.

    How did everybody feel about the credits song? I started laughing as soon as I figured out what it was.

  3. grimgrinningchris

    November 9th, 2020 at 12:26 pm

    Loved this one. I was originally put off by the “poster” cuz I am sick to death of clowns as a go-to in horror but was more than pleasantly surprised.
    We shot, sooo well paced, actual tension, the right amount of shocks and gore and villains we know JUST enough about… And I thought the lead girl was fantastic. Probably my favorite female lead in a streaming horror since HUSH.

    These dudes just signed Adam Driver to carry their next writing/directing joint, which, if memory serves, is a Science-fction/horror.

  4. This is definitely a good one, but I’ve seen it twice now and had different caveats both times. The first time, I thought a few of the early scares indicated more of a supernatural premise than what ended up being the case, so it felt a little scattered and frustrating. Then the second time I already knew the score so it just felt like there was too much build up for not enough payoff (though it was a bit more brutal than I remembered it being). But it’s still a very good horror movie with a solid mix of modern horror atmosphere and meat-and-potatoes horror fun. I’ll probably watch it a third time someday.

    I thought the ending was fine. Better in theory than execution but perfectly acceptable.

  5. I didn’t know the ending was controversial – will have to look into that. And I forgot to mention the end credits song, but maybe it’s best not to spoil. I like that, being a saddish cover of a rockin song used in multiple horror movies it seems like maybe some sort of subversion of that one trailer music cliche?

  6. Solid slasher without being/feeling retro, which is rare these days. This is the movie HELLFEST wanted to be.

    I saw this for first time last week thanks to Joe Bob Briggs (who’s high on it*) on Shudder.

    *= he praised it for being subtle about how the killers knew what they knew about the characters thanks to their phones, where people unfortunately expose themselves (information-wise, though sometimes more if you know what I mean and I think you do…)

  7. I liked this a lot, and I kinda thought the ending bits had some good themes about moving on from an abusive relationship. She uses the boyfriend’s truck to get away with her new crush (who seems like a much better person), and she uses the house of her abusive father to trap a bad guy. I like that, because it’s like she’s using the pieces of her shitty past to forge a better future.

  8. Watched this last night. I definitely found it to be effectively scary, but maybe that’s from reading about the Republican coup attempts immediately beforehand.

    I liked how very little of the killers’ whole deal is explained onscreen. This was unfortunately balanced out by the lead’s Gremlins-esque monologue about “I grew up in a haunted house…”

  9. As someone who used to work in the haunt industry, I just need to point out: Russ McKamey is a fucking piece of shit with a torture kink who, unlike all of us SANE people who actually want our customers to have FUN, managed to bullshit his way into legitimately terrorizing and traumatizing the naive legally. You open an amusement attraction because you want to waterboard people, I call you a worthless goddamn shitsmear for the rest of your days. Because you’d deserve nothing more.

    I don’t know if this has been bandied about as an October viewing choice by many, but I love it. I don’t adore the violence and gore mostly happening in quick cuts, or the use of “Oh, I just stabbed the wrong person” that I’ve seen a little too often, but otherwise, I admired its simplicity, its creepy villains, the way the characters are easily distinguishable without a ton of time lent to character development, and even a couple of the too-brief but very gruesome kill scenes it offers. It’s probably my favorite slasher to be set on Halloween in more than a couple decades.

  10. I definitely am Team This Was Good. It’s been a couple years now since I watched it, and I honestly remember about zero about it, just that I liked it when i watched it. Some other things are coming back to me based on the review and comments (like the boyfriend and the weird facial implants stuff).

    My biggest take-away was: This is good, and I will watch it again some day … maybe sooner now that Andrew has revived the comments.

    Long discourse on look and characterization of bad guys…

    I am with Vern on the masks — a very inspired choice. The right look, both in concept and execution, is so critical to a slasher or monster film*, as the vagaries of Michael Myers’s masks illustrate. For a slasher, an uninspired or shitty mask choice is a gigantic missed opportunity to up the fear factor and the memorable iconography factor (looking at you HELL-FEST), or it can just flat out take you out of the movie (looking at you, HALLOWEEN 5). So, a good look is not going to be enough to save an otherwise doomed film, but depending on how good or bad it is, it could add or knock significant points to this judge’s final score.

    Speaking of look, I was not a fan of the look and characterization of the actual guys under the masks, including the work they’d had done to their faces. Vern seemed to like it, and I will say that it was different, to be sure. But I found that it conveyed a trying-too-hard-to-be-creepy-but-ultimately-much-less-scary-than-the-the-actual-masks, which is kind of a weird reveal. It left the impression that these are just cosplay-gone-too-far edgelords. Like, guys who met on a death metal message board and then kind of radicalized or something: it was either ISIS, Proud Boys, or this shit. I’d have rather not seen them under the masks at all and keep it to the imagination, or seen them and had it be something really fucked up that I’m not creative enough to think of — like ghouls who come back from the dead to do this every year or something, or a mild-mannered looking family who are doing this just for thrills, or like just a few completely casual dudes who chat about sports and traffic in the backroom in between kills and are very workmanlike about the whole thing, for reasons we don’t know.

    Honestly, I think the best play might have been for them to never take off the masks at all, so that their motive and whole deal is a Rorschach. But these guys have all the self-conscious edgelord-iness of the Jared Leto Joker character design or Marilyn Manson. The reveal that they’ve invested a lot of energy in trying to look menacing under the masks makes them seem less self-assured in their sociopathy. It’s like wearing an “I don’t give a fuck” t-shirt. Then why wear the shirt, it’s self-defeating.

    Okay, end of rant. Still and all, I thought this was pretty inspired, nice-looking, simple, and different. Good job, guys.

    *I just watched PROM NIGHT (1980) and am working through HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME again, and since these ones want to play with a whodunit angle, they take the approach of showing only the killers arm or maybe a chest-down fully body shot. I’m okay to grant a waiver for relatively early slashers like these.

  11. That reminds me– the dudes what wrote and directed this also made my favorite installment of 50 States of Fright– yes, the Quibi series with Sam Raimi and the golden arm. “Almost There” is about Tessa Farmiga and Ron Livingston having to climb a giant ladder to fix a broken wind turbine. Also there’s ghosts and stuff. Not sure if that series has reappeared on Roku since they bought the Quibi library. (There was also an episode from the fellow who’s making the next Evil Dead flick.)

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