Haunted house-fueled movies are nothing new. The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring all trapped, terrorized or traumatized friends and families in their own homes with supernatural forces. The upcoming Haunter shreds those conventional beats by following 16-year-old Lisa Johnson (Abigail Breslin), a ghost in the past spooked by a living teenager, Olivia (Eleanor Zichy), from the present day. Together, they must piece together the mysterious circumstances behind Lisa and her family’s deaths before Olivia suffers a similar gruesome fate.
“It’s an interesting movie because it’s not a live girl being haunted by someone who is dead,” offers Breslin during a break from filming Haunter. “It’s a dead person being haunted by someone who is alive. In the beginning of the movie, Lisa kind of knows what is going on. She’s very stoic and goth and she becomes determined to discover what happened to her and her family and what’s going on with this other girl. It gets very spooky.”
“The story is familiar, but it’s told in such a unique way and from a unique point of view,” elaborates executive producer Steven Hoban. “Writer Brian King set out to analyze all of the conventions of the ghost story and use them, but look at them from a completely different perspective. We’ve seen movies before like The Sixth Sense and The Others where it’s from the ghost’s point of view. The big difference is we know that going in. It’s not part of the mystery. It’s not a surprise or a twist ending. It’s really, ‘What do you do if you are the ghost and trying to figure out why you are the ghost?’ Then he was even cleverer beyond that by creating this mystery that our ghost has to solve. So it begins with her being haunted and then realizing she is the haunter, not the hauntee, and in the position to do something to help the living.”
A self-professed horror buff, Breslin stepped into that genre with 2009’s Zombieland, which was entertaining as hell, but not exactly the stuff nightmares are made of. The young actress always yearned to star in something more unnerving in the vein of The Exorcist and Insidious. Directed by Splice’s Vincenzo Natali, produced by Ginger Snaps’ Hoban, and penned by Brainstorm’s King, Haunter easily met all her criteria.
“I loved doing Zombieland, but I liked doing that movie more for the comedy aspect of that, although some of the zombies are pretty creepy-looking,” offers Breslin. “I begged director Ruben [Fleischer] to be a zombie at some point, but that never happened. I’ve definitely always wanted to do a serious horror movie where it’s actually really scary. This one I read and loved it. It’s exactly what I wanted to do because it’s clever and unique and also really scary.”
“What I also liked about this movie is it’s a horror movie, but it deals a lot with the emotional life of a ghost,” she continues. “Lisa and her family repeat the same day over and over, even though things change within the day. Lisa definitely changes every day to the degree she knows what is going on. The action has been pretty fun. I threw my shoulder this morning doing a scene. It’s definitely been action-packed in a lot of ways. We build a tunnel, their running through water and climbing up walls. There’s a lot of running, crawling and rolling.”
Today on the Toronto set, Haunter’s cast and crew are crammed into the dimly lit Johnson’s garage for a pivotal sequence involving Lisa and the sinister serial killer, The Pale Man (Stephen McHattie). In the back seat of an old car, Breslin’s hands are bound behind her back, with duct tape stretched across her mouth. On cue, she struggles to free herself before McHattie slides into the front seat. Glancing at his helpless victim in the rear view mirror, McHattie grins before delivering his dialogue in a calm, icy voice.
“When you were alone, you were always the same,” he says. “Always trying to save your family from me. Trying to fight the tide. Yet here we are again, the two of us. And it ends the same. History doesn’t repeat itself. It rhymes. Time for you to go, Lisa.”
McHattie lights up a cigarette and then…. “Cut!” Production scrambles to reset and tweak the lighting before adjusting Breslin’s angles and requesting different intonations from McHattie. Regardless of the take, McHattie’s penetrating stare and menacing tone oozes evil.
“We have something scarier than a hockey mask, scarier than a burned up face and claws,” says Hoban. “We have Stephen McHattie and his piercing blue eyes. In this movie, he’s so chilling and so scary. It’s the way he smokes a cigarette in a 16-year-old girl’s bedroom that becomes very chilling. I think we’re creating a very iconic villain here just with a particular kind of wardrobe and with this actor. Within the story, he first appears as a telephone repairman. It’s very much a blue-collar kind of thing with a nondescript workman’s jacket and workpants and a cap. In addition to the cigarette, he has these sunglasses. It’s a little bit out of place and when he takes them off, you see those eyes. He’s terrifying.”
“What makes him scary is his presence in the house,” adds King. “We don’t know why he’s there. One of the inspirations for him was Burnt Offerings. There’s a limo driver at his mother’s funeral. He doesn’t have any lines, but he has this look, this smile, that is absolutely terrifying. There’s no effects, so early on, I wanted somebody who is just scary without having to speak and we don’t even know why we’re scared. Then we start to get into who he is.”
Many moviegoers associate horror with blood, guts and violence. Those gory tricks of the trade may prove effective for R rated fare, but Haunter is steering clear of the gross-out factor. Instead, the film relies on atmosphere and narrative to punctuate any terror-filled moments.
“When I was talking to Brian about it, he was like, ‘There’s no blood in the movie. There’s very minimal cursing,’” reports Hoban. “I like all those movies too, that have the blood and gore. With something like this, there’s nothing to distract you from the actual creepiness of the circumstances that the characters are going through. The actual story and what is going on is really frightening. I don’t feel like we need someone running around with a chainsaw to make it any scarier.”
King whole-heartedly agrees.
“When I started the script, it was coming at a time when all there were was these ultra-gory films or the torture porn,” he explains. “From a practical point of view, it’s been done to death and you become an afterthought to the films that become before. It just seemed to me that, ‘Hey, it’s been a while since we’ve had a more classic horror movie.’ There doesn’t need to be blood and it feels out of place if you put it in. You earn the scares more this way. The two easiest ways in horror movies to scare people is to gross them out or the jump outs. ‘Boo!’ I’m a big fan of horror movies that go into the deeper layers where you’re not so much closing your eyes. Your eyes are wide open because something is strange or odd.”
An interesting development is Lisa and the other spirits are confined to the one house. That meant production was forced to be creative and make the structure a character in itself. Every dark nook, cranny, corridor or crawl space had to scream ominous, disturbing and deadly. Breslin even admits being stuck in one location was more physical than she anticipated.
“When I first heard about this movie, ‘It’s a ghost story that takes place in a house, so it’s all in a studio,’ I thought, ‘I’ll get to be in bed. I’ll be eating dinner and sitting and relaxing,’” she says with a chuckle. “I rarely sit in this movie. You’d be surprised how much you can climb in the typical average suburban home. There are a lot weird, bizarre things Lisa finds in the house that leads her to more action.”
“There are a lot of scenes coming up this week I’m excited for,” Breslin continues. “There’s definitely a really creepy scene that is in the dining room of the house and some very strange things go on. It took us a day and a half to film. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s cool and creepy and there are a lot of prosthetics involved. It will be fun to see that all put together.”
“There’s a few shocking set pieces,” adds Hoban. “I can’t go into detail, but there’s a scene where The Pale Man sets out to show Lisa how he can mess with her if she doesn’t toe the line. It has to do with her family. It’s a devastating scene for the character. That’s one of our bigger special effects scenes. The rest of the scenes that will be scary and shocking are a little like Insidious. They are a bit old school in camera.”
Breslin has been a busy actress since this May, 2012 interview. She completed The Call, Ender’s Game and is slated for a slew of other projects including Wicked Blood, Pest and Maggie. But the question remains whether she’s ready for another Zombieland.
“I would love to do a Zombieland 2,” enthuses Breslin. “That would be so much fun. I don’t think that’s happening unfortunately. It’s been so long since we did the first one. I was 12. If it ever did happen, I would have to make it a condition that Lil Rock becomes a zombie. It’s only fair since they won’t let me do it at the end of the shoot. I want to look disgusting. And I’ll bite somebody in the movie.”
As for more Haunter, that all depends on the success of this one. Hoban sounds hopeful, but notes there could never be a round two with the same players.
“If we did a sequel, I don’t think we could do Lisa’s story because we resolve it,” concludes Hoban. “Then it would be a question of who we’re left with, which is The Pale Man. It would be continuing his journey. I can imagine doing a prequel to this on how he became what he is now. I can see doing a sequel, but I think it would be less interesting that a prequel. A prequel can get into a whole new chapter on this character and where we began.”