There’s always been a serpent-swallowing-its-tail relationship between horror-themed attractions – ghost trains, chambers of horrors, etc – and horror movies, all the way back to Tod Browning’s carny shockers and things like Mystery of the Wax Museum and Midnight in Madame Tussaud’s. The current wave of ‘haunts’ – Halloween attractions – and escape rooms are plainly influenced by things like Saw and Hostel, and have in due course inspired clutches of movies like the Houses of October minifranchise, the three-and-rising films called Escape Room and the trio of Fest features (Blood Fest, American FrightFest, Hell Fest) that came out last year.
Haunt, written and directed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (writers of A Quiet Place) with Eli Roth copping a producer credit, is to this cycle what The Funhouse, Hell Night or Terror Train were to the slasher movie boom of the ‘80s – the most basic, down-the-line, you-get-exactly-what-you-paid-for no frills version of the killer haunt theme, mounted with decent production values, a competent young cast, well-staged shocks and horrors, a modicum of off-the-shelf creepiness appropriate to an environment where clichés would be mandatory, and a faint air that it’s slightly doomed to get lost in the shuffle when it comes in a few years’ time to remember which of these was which. Maybe it’ll be the facial mod clown film – or the music box gears and string shotgun movie – or the Aurora model Old Witch picture – or ‘the one with …’ whichever of these young folks goes on to higher-profile work (you know, the way Eyes of a Stranger is ‘the one with Jennifer Jason Leigh’).
On Halloween, heroine Harper (Katie Stevens) has to put makeup over a bruised eye after getting thumped by her abusive red herring boyfriend but is persuaded by roommate Bailey (Lauryn Alisa McClain) to come out for the evening – she meets cute in a bar with nice guy Nathan (Will Brittain). They decide to hit up an ‘extreme haunted house’, .along with tubby semi-comedy guy Evan (Andrew Caldwell) – who’d be dressed up as the Human Centipede only the other two bailed – and two girls in fancy dress (Shazi Raja as a zombie nurse and Schuyler Helford as a flapper just like the number two girl in Hell Night). The out-of-the-way haunt features creepy actors in masks and predictably starts crossing boundaries with actual injuries, and then the kids find themselves having to squirm through a deadly maze – sustaining casualties – to get away from maniac killers.
Has the brutal boyfriend taken over the haunt? Is one of the gang involved in setting this up? How much of the horror is real, and how much staged? Is there a motive beyond mayhem? You may find yourself pondering these issues more than the screenwriters did, since the film doesn’t go down the mystery route much and just springs nasty surprises … including old favourites like putting a mask on a gagged victim and shoving them in front of a pitchwork wielded by their friend, a set of clues in creepy dolls and music boxes and reverse-writing that might be a key to escape, and the Funhouse style actual deformity hidden under cheap Halloween masks. It has a nasty edge, carried over from the torture porn cycle, preferring gruesome shocks to building up suspense – but the way the final girl’s backstory is filled in and directs the course of the last act (plus an obligatory nightmare feint and a clever coda) is reasonably ingenious.