As scare factory, Mac Carter’s Haunt is ridiculous and close to incomprehensible, but when it behaves as a drama about two teenagers whose sexual awakening is rooted in their shared sense of emotional disaffection, it flirts with the profound. Following an eerie opening scene depicting a grieving father trying to make contact with his deceased children via a mysterious box, and to noisily disastrous effects, the film tellingly and dumbly defines its namesake as “a feeding place for animals.” And as Janet Morello (Jacki Weaver) reveals through voiceover the nuances of the curse that claimed the lives of her husband and three children, and the Ascher family’s SUV pulls up to her former manse, one doesn’t doubt the film’s vested interest in delivering onto us a haunted-house attraction in the vein of carnival barker James Wan—all dancing shadows, creaking floorboards, and other more eardrum-piercing scare tactics.
When he lingers on the alienation that grips Ethan Ascher (Harrison Gilbertson) and the girl next door who’s being physically abused by her father, Carter teases out alluring implications about the relationship between parents and children. In one scene, the drowning out of Emily and Alan Asher’s (Ione Skye and Brian Wimmer) conversation about what ails Ethan, with the boy listening from a nearby stairway, either speaks to the filmmakers’ lazy sense of characterization or, more generously, their refusal to needlessly overcomplicate his baggage as anything other than typical teenage moodiness. Ethan ends up meeting Sam (Liana Liberato) in the cold of night, and not so cutely, his chivalric attempts at making her feel better following an incident with her father first shunned and then rewarded with a kiss. The exchange is at once nuts and totally convincing, not unlike Emily and Alan barely saying a word about the girl waking up in their son’s bed, as if their unusual show of leniency were an allowance for having forced him to uproot his life.
It’s these intimations of loss, longing, and concessions made that occasionally dignify Haunt. And the suggestion that Ethan’s sisters, Sara (Danielle Chuchran) and Anita (Ella Harris), are off somewhere in the corners of their new home dealing with ghostly encounters they keep to themselves because of secret negotiations they’ve made with the dead hints at the shame children sometimes feel about rocking their family’s sense of normalcy. Indeed, given the suggestive nature of the film during the Ascher family’s exchanges, and in one scene wherein Ethan sanely reacts to the possibility that he and Sam may have actually made contact with the dead Morello boy, it’s as if the filmmakers wish for the audience to entertain the possibility that there may be no haunting. Or maybe that Sam isn’t even being abused (it’s telling that her father remains faceless in his two scenes), and that the feeding place that the film’s title refers to is some kind of boundary between actual and psychological spaces.
But Carter repeatedly compromises his intuitive, often elegantly framed, glances at his main characters’ teenage blues by too busily going through amateur-night gesticulations of spooking his audience. Through a series of absurdly delivered flashback scenarios that suggest the Ascher house itself suffers from PTSD following the stripping of the Morello family tree, we’re condescendingly made privy to the root cause of the story’s hauntings. And all without a shred of clarity into, among other things, why some ghosts are more malicious than others, why the hauntings only become antagonistic after contact is made with the dead via the mystery box, why said box was even left behind to begin with, and why the meanest presence of them all harbors a misaligned sense of revenge. Given how tawdrily pockmarked with plot holes these overacted, info-dumping motions are, after a while it’s tempting to view the psychological minutiae that Haunt provocatively summon throughout as a figment of a too-considerate critic’s imagination.