Apparently laboring under the impression that scary movies, like graduation speeches, are best commenced with a quote from Webster’s Dictionary, Haunt essentially begins by defining its lazy, generic title. But here’s the catch: In what qualifies as the film’s only genuine surprise—including its inevitable third-act rug pull—the opening credits dramatically reveal that said title refers not to that thing that evil spirits do, but rather to “a feeding place for animals.” In truth, a third definition is probably most applicable: For all but the greenest of genre buffs, this exceedingly familiar ghost story will feel like a “place habitually frequented”—maybe the local Halloween house, still recycling its decade-old tricks, or the “Because you liked Insidious” line of the Netflix recommendations menu.
Not to put too fine of a point on it, but Haunt is haunted by clichés, beginning with its American Horror Story setup: After an ominous cold open and a prologue narrated by token famous cast member Jacki Weaver, the usual family unit—mother, father, 2.5 kids—shrugs off its case of the willies and moves into a refreshingly affordable fixer-upper. The good news, at least for teenage son Evan (Harrison Gilbertson), is that their new neighbors include a broody girl-next-door type, Sam (Liana Liberato), who’s keen on adventures and cuddle parties. The bad news, common to most houses with horrifying histories, is that the new digs are filthy with angry apparitions. These spectral squatters demonstrate a wide spectrum of vaguely defined abilities, like the neighborhood kid who can’t settle on what superpower his custom character will possess. They can slam doors. They can take over human bodies. They can fill their hauntees’ heads with conveniently expositional memories. And they can scuttle silently across a room or past a doorway—a skill that, to be fair, comes standard on most modern ghost models.
In Haunt, scares are scarce and tropes are liberally lifted from better movies. Only those dependably, invariably spooked by, say, a little girl talking to her imaginary-friend-who’s-not-actually-imaginary will experience the intended gooseflesh. Strangely, the one area in which the film truly excels is the downtime between loud spectral appearances. Gilbertson and Liberato have an authentically adolescent rapport, neither too clever nor too stunted, and their awkward attempts to grapple with the apparent existence of an afterlife ring true. (The dialogue misses more than it hits, but there are a few sharp lines, as when the two successfully commune with the dead using a kind of modified ham radio, prompting Evan to proclaim, “The point is to want it to work, and then go ‘aw shucks’ when it doesn’t.”) As for Weaver, she passes through the film like a swift, bracing gust of air; the Aussie actress does more with one sudden shift in volume than the effects team does with a funhouse’s worth of spring-loaded spirits. If Haunt has any kind of afterlife, it’ll be because of her.