Do a Google search of “scariest haunted houses in America,” and wow, there are some seriously elaborate and expansive attractions out there, all designed to give you the fright of your life.
A 2018 piece from Insider.com ranked the scariest haunted house experiences in every state, e.g., “Slaughter House” in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, where “visitors will be taken through the home of a demented sadomasochistic couple,” and “The Dent Schoolhouse” in Cincinnati, “an old schoolhouse haunted by a former janitor” who murdered students.
Of course, the actors staying in character while portraying killer clowns or bloodthirsty zombies or serial murderers are no more real than the cast of the latest production of “Tony ’n’ Tina’s Wedding.” It’s all just a show.
But what if you and your friends decided to check out one of those haunted theme attractions on a cynical lark, laughing and joking as you entered — only to find yourselves trapped in a REAL house of horrors, where the mysterious, masked figures lurking around every corner have no intention of allowing any of you to survive the night?
That’s the clever premise of “Haunt,” a stylish and creative and quite grisly horror gem written and directed by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, who teamed up with Jon Krasinski on the screenplay for last year’s smash hit “A Quiet Place.”
This intense and claustrophobic gore-fest is far removed from the elegiac tone of “A Quiet Place.” It’s more like a “Saw” movie, mixed in a bloody blender with elements from films such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Cabin in the Woods” and “The Hills Have Eyes” and even “Carrie.”
And yet there are a few genuinely thought-provoking sequences sprinkled in.
An opening title card identifies the setting as “Campus Housing” in “Carbondale, Illinois,” i.e., Southern Illinois University, which back in the 1980s was the site of some notoriously out-of-control Halloween festivities.
Alas, “Haunt” (which was actually filmed in Kentucky) has nothing to do with any of that. It’s just the arbitrary locale for our story, which kicks off when Katie Stevens’ Harper, who is trying to end a relationship with an abusive boyfriend, reluctantly agrees to join her roommate Bailey (Lauryn Alisa McClain) for some Halloween partying.
(Bailey, to Harper: “You want to know how I know your boyfriend is an alcoholic? Because he’s an alcoholic.” Shades of, “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook…” in “The Social Network.”)
Harper doesn’t have a costume, as she hadn’t planned on venturing into the Halloween parties. Then again, as a guy she meets points out, all Harper has to do is pull up the hood on that sweatshirt of a certain color she’s wearing and ta-da! She’s Little Red Riding Hood.
The night eventually takes Harper and Bailey and their friends Evan (Andrew Caldwell), Angela (Shazi Raja) and Mallory (Schuyler Helford), as well as a new guy named Nathan (Will Brittain), a potential romantic interest for Harper, to a haunted house theme attraction in the middle of nowhere.
A stupid dorky doorman in a clown mask has them sign release forms, confiscates their cell phones and outlines the rules of engagement once they enter the house, e.g., you can’t make physical contact with any of the “characters” you encounter along the way.
Sounds like fun! Let’s do this! What could possibly go wrong?
How about everything.
It takes a while for Harper and her friends to realize they’re the prey in a real-life slasher movie — trapped in a hellish maze, desperately trying to decipher cryptic clues ostensibly leading to a possible escape route, horrified to bear witness to acts of torture and murder, on the run from a band of psychopathic thrill-killers.
Even then, they make some classic horror movie mistakes, like splitting up when they really shouldn’t split up, and trusting the wrong people at the wrong time.
Ah, but in the skilled and self-aware hands of Woods and Beck, this isn’t a case of falling into plot potholes; it’s more like they’re embracing and having fun with certain clichés.
Right before they pull the rug out from under us with some harsh and rough twists of the plot (which ultimately increase our emotional investment in seeing good win out over evil).
Much of “Haunt” takes place within that haunted house, which is a marvel of production design. Kudos as well to the fluid camerawork tracking the action as various characters undertake a labyrinthine journey inside that house.
All of the young actors are terrific, but Katie Stevens is the standout as a survivor who refuses to surrender control of her destiny to the demons blocking her exit from the haunted house — or the demons haunting her past.