It’s very much back to basics with “Haunt,” about six students from Southern Illinois University who make the mistake of accepting an invitation to enter an isolated haunted house at Halloween. They are immediately threatened by a gang of mask-wearing fiends armed with all kinds of murderous tools, who have rigged the place with an amazing assortment of complicated traps. You would think that college kids would have seen enough horror movies to know that going into such an establishment is a terrible idea, but if they were smart, there would be no movie—or maybe they’d be in Cambridge rather than Carbondale.
As generic as the premise is, however, writer-directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, who co-wrote “A Quiet Place” with John Krasinski, show an aptitude for adding some pizzazz to an old routine. Their dialogue is more authentic-sounding than what you’ll usually find in such fare, and their direction more stylish, aided by a production design (by Austin Gorg) that’s colorful and glitzy, as well as sleek cinematography (by Ryan Samul) and crisp editing (by Terel Gibson). Of the behind-the-scenes contributions, only the score by Tomandandy seems rote.
Beck and Woods have also been astute in their choice and direction of their youngish cast. Katie Stevens almost makes you believe in Harper, the destined last girl standing, who’s portrayed as putting up with her abusive boyfriend Sam (Samuel Hunt) because of, according to the dime-store psychology suggested in flashbacks, his unhappy childhood (flashbacks are provided to explain). Her roommate Bailey (Lauryn McClain) convinces her to go out to a Halloween party without him, and it’s there that they—accompanied by pals Angela (Shazi Raja) and Mallory (Schuyler Helford) meet nice-guy baseball dude Nathan (Will Brittain) and his chubby, borderline obnoxious buddy Evan (Andrew Caldwell).
Before long, they’ve all repaired top Evan’s van. Following a rural road, they find the isolated haunted house and, after surrendering their cellphones, enter the creepy establishment. The initial exhibits are tame enough, but one involving a shrieking girl being tortured with a jot poker shakes them up badly, and they soon find themselves being separated into small groups and facing a series of perils orchestrated by a cast of miscreants costumed as clowns, zombies, witches, devils, ghosts and chainsaw-wielding versions of Leatherface. Needless to say, they’re interested in inflicting not just scares but physical damage.
If you’ve ever seen a horror movie before, you pretty much know the drill here. But Beck and Woods arrange some pretty good set pieces and choreograph them well—including the obligatory death scenes. The acting, too, is better than average, with Brittain likable as the guy who effectively becomes Harper’s protector. The other prospective victims are fine as well, though Caldwell’s Evan is inevitably rather irritating.
If there’s a problem here, it involves the motives of the villains, who have apparently constructed their extraordinarily elaborate trap for just these few random kids, and then prove to be remarkably inept in putting their Rube Goldberg contraptions into operation. (Even the twist at the close shows the grand master’s a klutz.) Worse, in order to provide an extra corpse the script resorts to the sudden appearance of an extra victim—in this case the jealous Sam, who’s tracked Harper down via her phone, only to prove a much easier target than any of the more likable characters. It’s becoming a hoary cliché.
What we’re left with is an old-fashioned Halloween haunted-house slasher movie, better made and more imaginative than most but not enough to make it really distinctive.