Teen and tween girls are surely underserved by horror-movie makers, which makes sense, since they’re less likely to be in the market for murder and mayhem than their testosterone-ridden brothers. The occasionally intriguing, but ultimately middling Haunter is caught in some kind of gauzy haunted-house purgatory between a girl-powered YA story and a ghostly serial-killer mystery. It’s likely too dark to please the girls who might otherwise relate to its story and star, and probably too simple and pitch-positive for genre fans.
Abigail Breslin plays a goth-leaning 15-year-old (The Smiths, The Cure, and David Bowie posters adorn her room, and she’s never without a Siouxsie & The Banshees shirt) living a Groundhog Day existence in 1985: She wakes up every morning the day before her birthday, and events play out pretty much the same way, with slight variations. When eerie things start happening—the haunting sounds of a clarinet, the freaky sight of a killer’s scrapbook, a cliché-filled encounter with a Ouija board—Breslin realizes that she and her whole family are actually dead. So yes: Groundhog Day plus The Others is an accurate summation, to a point, though the equation might also require Nancy Drew to really be accurate.
Enter Stephen McHattie, a character actor best known for looking just like a more-famous character actor, Lance Henriksen. In a truly scary performance, McHattie warns Breslin not to try and contact the living or wake her family from their ghostly ignorance. Being a rebellious teen who likes alternative music, she naturally takes this admonition as a challenge. Some ghost-on-ghost action ensues, and Haunter stumps itself again: One minute it’s pitilessly dark—McHattie, in both human and ghost forms, exudes evil—the next it’s cheap scares and fully telegraphed plot points. Thankfully, director Vincenzo Natali (Splice, Cube, and maybe the forever-in-development Neuromancer film) mostly makes everything look and sound sharp and exciting, from subterranean torture chambers to spooky suburban garages. It’s just too bad his genre mash didn’t quite gel into anything nearly as substantial as any of its influences.