On the first night, though, they're only showing one movie. The calm before the storm...
Rated R for horror violence/gore, and language throughout
Score: 3 out of 5
The first movie on the docket is a big one. Coming from Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, the writers of A Quiet Place, one of the most successful horror movies of the last few years (and a movie that I still, for whatever reason, have not yet seen), it's among the most notable premieres of the entire festival, at least in terms of the people behind it. It's got a premise that, while not wholly original (both The Houses October Built and Hell Fest have done something like it), still offers a lot of room for creativity. And that is more or less what Haunt offered. It's not an original film, and it's not a particularly deep one, but it does well at what it sets out to do: serve up a violent "dead teenager movie" with some nifty visuals, solid production values, and a premise that anybody who's ever been to a haunted house around Halloween has probably thought of and wished they made a movie about.
The plot is simple: a group of college friends decide to head out to an "extreme" haunted house, promising a more harrowing and horrifying experience than usual, complete with waivers to be signed and scareactors who are allowed to touch the guests. Once they get there, surprise! It turns out the place is run by evil people who want to kill them. The first act does a great job setting the ground rules, sending the characters through the house with ominous signs all over the place that something is up, but all of which could be chalked up to the conceit that the people here are willing to go the extra mile to give their guests their money's worth. A spider-filled maze turns out to have some real spiders in it rather than just fake ones. Some kind of oil or resin coats the walls in one room. A very convincing-looking performance is put on in which a young woman is brutally murdered. Then, of course, the shit hits the fan and people start dying for real, starting with the most disposable of the bunch, those who'd received the least focus up until that point.
If you've seen a slasher movie, you know how this is gonna play out: the protagonists are whittled down one by one as they fight to escape, before a hardened survivor (and maybe some of her friends -- and it's usually a her) takes the fight to the villains. I don't mind formula when it's done well, and that is certainly the case here. Beck and Woods make great use of both the environment and the costumes of the haunted house's staff, all of which evoke classic Halloween costumes to great effect and turn out to be hiding some really freaky stuff underneath; it's never explicitly stated what the bad guys' deal is, but going by the heavy body modification they've all done on their faces, a number of ideas, not all of them mutually exclusive (circus performers? S&M fetishists?), will come to mind. The first act sets up the geography of the haunted house so that we know where the main characters are and the route they should be taking in order to get out -- but always with the question of what lays further down the maze. And when people start dying, the film hides a lot of the worst gore but shows or otherwise insinuates just enough that it feels painful, as befitting a film produced by Eli Roth. The cast were all solid, especially Katie Stevens as Harper, a heroine who doesn't get a lot to say but does get a lot to do as she fights for survival, culminating in a killer ending in which she well and truly turns the tables on the people who killed her friends.
The Bottom Line
Issues in the script keep it from really soaring, but this is still a decent Halloween-themed slasher that succeeds on the strength of its core components: namely, that it's scary and well-made and delivers on the important stuff.