Appearances can be deceiving. It’s a bright, sunny Tuesday afternoon in May, 2012. The air is calm. It’s warm and peaceful outside. As the cliché goes, it feels like a good day to be alive. And yet, inside an unassuming studio building, tucked away on a downtown Toronto side road, dwells a malevolent, and rest assuredly, undead presence. This is the set for the supernatural thriller, Haunter, from Cube/Splice director Vincenzo Natali, Ginger Snaps producer Steven Hoban and Night Train scribe Brian King.
Described as “a reverse ghost story,” the movie follows Lisa Johnson (Zombieland’s Abigail Breslin), a teenage girl who died under mysterious circumstances in 1986 and whose spirit is trapped in her former family home. Now, she must somehow warn the current residents about the sinister Pale Man (Pontypool’s Stephen McHattie), before they fall prey to his evil as well. And the only way to accomplish that is to haunt them.
Today, inside the dimly lit maze of sets, the cast and crew are lighting and preparing for a chilling moment between Lisa and The Pale Man. Unfortunately, it’s a pivotal scene that demands Natali’s full attention, so it isn’t until a few weeks later that we talk over the phone about building a better horror movie. Haunter makes its world premiere at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival. In the meantime, check out the interview below and keep an eye out for additional coverage closer to the release date.
ShockTillYouDrop.com: You spent 12 years pushing to get Splice completed. What made Haunter a good follow-up project?
Vincenzo Natali: Because it didn’t take 12 years. It felt good to work on a movie that came together fairly quickly. It’s written by a friend of mine and I had nothing to do with the conception of that film. It’s completely Brian King’s creation. I’m just riding on his coattails and that felt good. It was kind of a relief to be coming in on something that had already been created and looking at it from the outside, as opposed to spending over a decade on the inside, and then developing a script and putting all the money together and then directing it. I think there’s advantages to making movies either way, but sometimes it’s nice to step into something with that kind of fresh perspective, an outsider’s perspective, and then find a way into it.
Shock: Was it strange going from a more scientific vehicle like Splice to something more supernatural such as Haunter?
Natali: Actually, it was. To be honest, I’m not particularly comfortable in the realm of superstition or supernatural phenomena. Partly because I don’t believe in it. I think Brian’s script is not really relying on that stuff. In a science fiction way, it’s asking the question, “What’s real?” Without giving too much away, it’s about a teenage girl reliving this single Sunday, this one day, with her family, over and over again. To the family, it seems like a perfectly normal Sunday, but she’s the only one who is aware the day is repeating. So she knows something is not right. To me, that was the hook. That’s what really drew me into the film because it’s about reality not being what it appears to be. Then what Brian has done with his haunted house is created various levels of reality that are co-existing together. And it’s all explained through supernatural means, but that underlying idea isn’t as supernatural conceited. It’s much more philosophical, more metaphysical in a way, and I think really interesting.
Shock: Going back to the premise, what does the movie title “Haunter” refer to?
Natali: It refers to a very specific kind of ghost that Brian has created. It’s his invention. Brian has taken a lot of the tropes of the haunted house genre and he’s completely turned them on their head. He’s reinvented them in a very clever way. A haunter is part of that. It’s part of the unique Brian King mythology.
Shock: And Abigail is the haunter?
Natali: I don’t want to say any more than that. I think it’s better not to. Suffice to say, Abigail is a ghost.
Shock: Your movies are more than just horrible events happening to people. Is there a message to Haunter? Are we exploring that human element we’ve gotten in your other projects?
Natali: I hope so. For me, the best science fiction/horror/fantasy is always about the human condition. For all of the baubles, great visual effects and crazy ideas that draw people like me to those sort of movies, if it isn’t in some way dealing with why we’re here on this planet and our daily lives as human beings, then I’m ultimately not interested. For me, Haunter is a movie that is really touching on those timeless questions of, “Why the hell are we here? Where the hell are we going?”
Shock: Haunter is on track to be PG-13. How does that influence your storytelling compared to your R-rated material?
Natali: In making Haunter, I vowed there would not be a single drop of blood spilled on camera. I was true to that vow. I think it’s cool. Every movie defines itself and has its own set of criteria. In the case of Haunter, we very much wanted to make a ghost story in line with Jack Clayton’s The Innocents or Robert Wise’s The Haunting. For me, the best ghost movies are where everything is suggested and very little is seen. I find those movies more terrifying for their lack of gore and explicit visual effects. The thrill of them is how the filmmakers scare you with nothing more than sound and shadows and mirrors.
Shock: So you’re going to prove to naysayers that PG-13 can be damn scary then?
Natali: Yes, yes I am. We’re not doing Insidious. It’s not a fun house kind of movie. It’s a little subtler than that. The things that really resonate in a frightening way aren’t jump scares. The Shining is another example of a film that resonates and disturbs, rather than shocks. I find David Lynch’s work does that as well.
Shock: Can you talk about casting your two leads, Abigail Breslin and Stephen McHattie?
Natali: It was a wonderful thing. We had a very limited budget to make this movie. We had to shoot it quickly. It could have gone terribly wrong, but it didn’t. Abigail and Stephen were absolutely at the top of our list for those roles. Those are the people we wanted and we got them. That doesn’t always happen, so we were really lucky. I think both of them are kind of iconic. When you see the movie, they play their parts beautifully and in a way, I hope lasts. If the movie is a success, it’s 90 per cent because of them.
Shock: What makes the Pale Man such an evil presence and threat?
Natali: He is the Minotaur in the maze. Or the spider in the center of the web. He is the manipulator. He’s that thing you don’t see, but you know is there and waiting for you. Stephen McHattie plays it to the hilt. He’s fantastic. He exudes evil, but not in a Whipley Snidely way. It’s more of a very unnerving way. He’s truly terrifying. Just his presence… He doesn’t even have to speak. His very existence is a special effect.
Shock: What were some of the challenges you faced with Haunter?
Natali: It’s just time. The way things work these days is, when you make a ghost movie, you only get x amount of dollars. I blame James Wan and Insidious for this. They made that movie for a million and a half dollars, so now nobody wants to pay more than that for a movie like Haunter. If this movie was with a studio, it would be another story. But it’s an independent, so international buyers are like, “If it’s a haunted house film, we’re not going to pay more than x amount of dollars.” It was all about how do we make this movie, which in a way is a very complex, elegant, atmospheric film, in a very short amount of time? It was a Chinese puzzle box. How do we pull that off? That’s why it was hard.