Haunter concerns an American girl on the verge of sweetly turning 16 who finds herself in the middle of her very own Groundhog Day. Every day for Lisa (Abigail Breslin) is the same morning before her birthday, replete with pancakes, her mother’s (Michelle Nolden) tedious badgering about missing clothes from the laundry, and the pummeling clank-clanking of her father (Peter Outerbridge) working on a broken down car in the garage. After living this day countless times, Lisa’s finally pushed by boredom and irritation to see what the hell is going on, which leads her to conclusions that the audience will have most likely sorted out 45 minutes earlier.
This premise is well-worn, to put it lightly, but there are lurking potentialities that elude director Vincenzo Natali, particularly the possibly parodic resemblance that Lisa’s supernatural crisis bears to that most traditional of suburban teenager laments: that nothing’s ever happening in their life. There are also a few stray resonant suggestions of the fashions with which older men exploit teenage girls, but Haunter never develops any of its rote narrative happenings with any sense of emotional or symbolic progression. Natali emphasizes technically impressive shots in the service of predictable, boring expository beats, at the expense of elaborating on Lisa’s growing feelings of isolation and torment. Which is to say that Haunter is a vintage Vincenzo Natali film: all conceit, no follow-through, and, unlike the director’s Cube or Splice, this film’s premise isn’t striking enough to initially draw you in on novelty alone.
Thankfully, there are some grace notes. Breslin is undergoing the tricky transition from child to adult actor with finesse, and she informs Haunter with the same grounded, refreshing sense of sanity that also quietly carried The Call. Breslin’s young, but she’s learned a trick that many actors decades her senior have never managed: to relay panic without indulging false histrionics that would compromise the dignity of her character (and for this gift, smart thriller directors will probably continue to seek her out). And Stephen McHattie, the underrated character actor who was wonderful a few years ago in Pontypool, eventually turns up as an otherworldly baddie and briefly ups the film’s stakes.
But Natali remains a frustrating director who always appears to be on the verge of making a legitimately good movie. Splice, in particular, had the potential to be an outrageous and sexually progressive horror film, but the execution was so lifeless that you were likely to forget it by the time you made it back out to the theater parking lot. Haunter is warmer and more inviting than Natali’s prior films, primarily for Breslin’s performance, but there’s little to distinguish it from any other supernatural tale of a girl lost.