"History doesn't repeat itself, it rhymes." Every day, Lisa Johnson (Abigail Breslin) wakes up to the same Sunday morning in 1985, her little brother, Robbie (Peter DaCunha), contacting her from his walkie-talkie as he pretends to search for treasure. Her mom, Carol (Michelle Nolden), makes pancakes for breakfast, mac and cheese for lunch, and meatloaf for dinner. Her dad, Bruce (Peter Outerbridge), spends much of his day in the garage working on their car. It's foggy outsidetoo foggyand Lisa is told to stay in the house. After doing the wash in the basement, Carol questions her about some missing articles of clothing. In the evening, her parents watch "Murder, She Wrote." Lisa's 16th birthday is tomorrow, but it never comes, the next day playing out just as the last had. It is established very quickly that Lisa and her family are dead, and she's the only one who has seemed to figure it out. When she starts hearing sounds coming from the vent in her room and discovers a mysterious door behind the washing machine, her curiosity gets the best of her. What else does she have to do, anyway? The more she investigates, however, the more things begin to change and personalities alter. When the Pale Man (Stephen McHattie) shows up at the Johnsons' door, claiming to be from the phone company, he sternly makes it clear to Lisa that she either stop snooping where she doesn't belong, or suffer the consequences.
Written by Brian King and directed by Vincenzo Natali (2010's "Splice
"), "Haunter" is a moody, meticulously designed mystery, one that is spare in its storytelling but full of detailsmany of them specific to the era in which it is predominately set. From a Rubik's cube and a David Bowie poster to a Siouxsie and the Banshees sweatshirt, a record playing the "Peter and the Wolf" theme from Serge Prokofiev, a Walkman, Pac-Man, and Ronald Reagan delivering a speech on the television, the film accumulates a strong sense of place. It is also a nice change that there is no attempt to fool the viewer about what is going on; it is not a spoiler to say that Lisa and her family have been killed, because this is learned in the first act. What she does not yet know is how she died, and why she is stuck in a loop, living the same day over time and again. When she comes upon a scrapbook and learns that there were many other girls in the neighborhood that turned up missing, going all the way back to the 1950s, the plot thickens. What isn't so successful is the movie's increasing convolutedness. The climax, especially, reminds of a sudsy Disney picture that starts foreboding and then goes soft, full of swirling spirits and walks toward the light. It also is never half as scary as Natali wants it to be; he simply doesn't stick the landing on the frights.
"Haunter" never completely loses the viewer's interest, but the edgy, enigmatic would-be momentum goes slack in the second half as the slim plot extends to 97 minutes when 80 would have made for a tauter experience. Abigail Breslin (2013's "The Call
") is the focal point of every scene, carrying a narrative that requires she walk around looking confused much of the time. Her Lisa is an appreciably free-thinking, pro-active character, but also given some unconvincing dialogue to act out. Breslin is a pro, to be sure; she does all that she can with the material, but admittedly tends to overcompensate a few times and goes ever so slightly over the top in the more melodramatic interludes. As the "Pale Man," as he is credited, Stephen McHattie (2011's "Immortals
") may be tall and thin, but manages to cut a majorly threatening figure out of his grizzled spectral character. When Lisa connects on a deeper level with her parents and brother, there is a bittersweet poignancy in knowing that they can never go back to the way things were when they first moved into their new house and assumed they still had long, full lives ahead of them. When "Haunter" rings true on occasions such as this, it only makes its wishy-washy postcard portrait of death and the supernatural seem all the more tacky.