If you were to compose a list of the most criminally under appreciated writer/directors currently working today, Vincenzo Natali would probably be somewhere near the top of mine. Best known for his debut film, the cult scifi classic Cube, his career since then has gone mostly under the radar, with the Wachowskian mind wipe thriller Cypher and the brilliant nihilistic comedy Nothing receiving little to no attention, and his most recent mainstream effort Splice largely failing critically and commercially. His latest, regrettably coming straight to VOD, is Haunter, a trippy ghost story more original and engaging than any you're likely to see on the big screen any time soon.
Haunter follows Lisa, a teenage girl living in the 80's, or rather one perpetually repeating day in 1985 that has somehow become her prison, stuck in a house she can't leave with a family oblivious to their shared plight. Other than the fact that there's also a ghost story on top of the time loop mechanic, its difficult to explain any more of the film without spoilers, and more so than most, I'm especially inclined not to spoil this one, if only because its so rare that I find a film that I'm so desperate for people to see free of expectations. If I were to play the studio game of this meets that, I'd call it The Others meets Groundhogs' Day, and if that combination doesn't excite you enough to close out this review and watch the thing right now, then I don't know what more I could say.
Credited to the same writer as Cypher, it is similarly very plot heavy and mythologically dense, never explicitly spelling out the rules that govern its universe but leaving just enough clues to let you figure it all out on your own. Its intriguing but not impenetrable, just complex enough to give you something just a little different than you're used to without overwhelming you with overly complicated concepts or philosophy. So many horror movies today follow the model of Insidious or The Conjuring where the supernatural elements need not be explained, which some might argue enhances the mystery, but only because the payoff is rarely worth it when they do explain things. Though it plays around with the nature of storytelling by cleverly intertwining the mechanics of time travel and the paranormal, Haunter never forgets to maintain the tension of a suspense thriller, never letting the puzzle at the heart of its structure get in the way of the momentum.
Said momentum is largely driven by the film's stand out, Stephen McHattie, billed simply as The Pale Man. Before Benedict Cumberbatch stormed through last year's Hobbit sequel as the dragon Smaug, McHattie's ghostly serial killer was at the top of my list of best villains for 2013, a creepy and manipulative creature more unsettling with a simple stare than any similar antagonist I can think of in recent horror movie memory. Moreover, what makes him scary is not his capacity to jump out at unexpected moments or pull some other trick to fake you out. His power lies in his control over the people you've grown to care about throughout the film and his willingness to torture them for his own amusement at a moments notice, making his presence felt throughout as soon as he's introduced, whether or not he's actually onscreen.
Apart from some particularly ugly CGI exterior shots that are given just a bit too much focus, there's really very little to complain about with Haunter, and too much good to miss out on. Its currently streaming on Netflix as of this writing, and if you only trust my recommendation on one movie this whole year, please do yourself a favor and make it this one. Its the kind of movie that you might otherwise be likely to pass up, losing it in the ever growing morass of VOD horror schlock that gradually builds every year, but this one time I ask that you resist the impulse to skim past it and give Haunter a chance. You won't regret it.