Although I don’t subscribe to the term’s existence, there have been a number of movies coming out over the last couple years categorized as “elevated horror,” a way to describe horror films that attempt to exalt the genre beyond its tropes. While this is a regressive term used within a genre that already struggles to maintain acceptance, it has nonetheless been used to categorize a smattering of releases, one of which was last year’s A Quiet Place, written by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods.
Now, the duo is back, this time also taking up the directors’ mantle with Haunt, a film the two wrote at the same time as A Quiet Place and designed to be a counterpoint to the style of that film. In a statement regarding the film, they wrote “…if A Quiet Place was our ode to ‘prestige’ horror and an attempt to elevate tired genre conventions, then Haunt was our counterpoint – a feeling that horror doesn’t need to be ‘elevated’ to be wonderful.” And this is certainly the case, as Haunt is a wild and wonderful throwback to classic ’80s slashers with a few modern touches that, while not pretentiously described as such, is indeed elevated.
There are no heavy themes here, no overarching social commentary, no deep narrative steeped in ancient folklore accented with artful cinematography. Horror films that contain these elements can be great, to be sure, but Haunt reminds us that you don’t need these things to have a creepy, fun time at the movies.
The plot is stripped down and dead simple: you have a group of friends who go to a haunted house only to find themselves being terrorized by its sadistic employees. There are shades of Hooper’s The Funhouse here, but it’s clear that Beck and Woods pulled their inspiration from a number of sources when crafting this effectively scary creepshow. The location and solid character development evoke Saulnier’s Green Room and the films of Eli Roth, who also happens to be a producer on the film.
With a deeper level of character development comes a deeper connection to the central cast. In too many slasher films, the audience is simply tolerating the characters long enough to see them get horribly murdered in some fashion, but with Haunt I found myself actively rooting for everyone to make it out of this horrible situation unscathed. (Spoiler: they don’t.)
Not only must our unlucky protagonists contend with the cadre of killers running the haunted house, but they also have to deal with the various traps and perilous obstacles contained within. This brought me back to the great, and sadly underrated, Collector series, during some of the film’s most thrilling moments.
It’s gory and adequately terrifying – managing to set itself apart from the recent batch of extreme haunt-related movies like Hell Fest, Blood Fest, The Houses October Built, Hell House LLC., and a slew of others – by parcelling out high-quality scares at and even pace, not bombarding the viewers, but also never allowing them to feel safe either.
The killers are effectively creepy, donning various costumes that somehow evoke more fear when the masks come off. We don’t really know who these people are or why they’re doing this, but does it really matter? While some may take issue with the lack of explanation as to the motivations of these weirdos, I’d argue that the film works better with these details omitted.
To think that there’s no underlying point to any of this besides brutalizing anyone who falls into their trap is far more horrifying than to hear some long diatribe about how they are doing it to appease some angry god or whatever. Haunt is a horror film that’s minimal by design. It strips away needless exposition and boils the formula down to its base essentials, resulting in a memorable experience that’s a perfect watch for the upcoming Halloween season.