Haunt and Countdown Are Two 2019 Horror Movies Living in the Past(er)
Horror screenwriters and directors all around the world are having nightmares about Ari Aster’s Hereditary. Why? It made their jobs a lot harder. Aster’s bone-chilling 2018 debut expertly explored the trauma of grief through genre thrills, and just as chills follow thrills, so too 2019 has responded with a pair (at least) of bargain bin, knock-off imitators with stitched-on sorrows that do nothing but demean the characters and belittle the genre. Countdown and Haunt disappoint in their own terrifying ways.
Released into theaters the last Friday of October, Countdown follows in the well-worn path of high-but-dumb-concept teen horrors like Truth or Dare and Happy Death Day: this time, it’s an app that tells you when you’re going to die. You can’t delete the app. You can’t cheat the app. All you can do is scream and run and cower as the clock ticks down and death approaches. Full of cheap jump-scares and a rabbit-hole of religious imagery, the movie plays like a weird patchwork of horror clichés. Compared to its predecessors in the pulp-fun subgenre, Countdown makes one crucial mistake: it tries too hard to explain itself. Anyone who purchases a ticket to this movie arrives ready and willing to suspend their disbelief – the film just needs to let them. Instead of playing its concept for thrilling and one-of-a-kind set-pieces like Final Destination, it bends itself over backward trying to justify its absurd concept with complex satanic rituals and advanced web coding. The scariest thing about Countdown is the Terms & Service agreement. On the other end of the spectrum is Haunt, a September limited release that snuck by most of us despite elaborate scenarios seemingly pulled out of the mind Saw creator Leigh Whannell. Now available on horror streaming platform Shudder via Amazon Prime, Haunt follows Harper and her group of college friends, who, for some reason venture out to a middle-of-nowhere haunted house after a night of costumes and drinking. Effortlessly aware of horror tropes, the film plays with audience expectations to build tension through dread, releasing it at unexpected moments. From crawl-space mazes to pick-your-own coffin games, the film’s first half is everything Countdown isn’t: it revels in its surrealism, and makes the most of our suspension of disbelief. Unfortunately, in its efforts to double-down on that fun, Haunt ignores what elevates it and keeps the audience’s interest. For the first hour, neither the characters nor the viewers can be quite sure whether this haunted house is anything more than just that: an extremely compelling haunted house. Cabin in the Woods helped pave the way for the doubt that seeped into my mind: is this all just some intricate charade? Is the danger real or imagined? I won’t spoil the answer, but unfortunately, Haunt dispenses with the mystery barely halfway through, and in the process deflates its own momentum. Despite their varying degrees of traditional success, Countdown and Haunt share one thing in common: their half-baked side-plots about grief that attempt to lend some sort of gravitas to a genre that simply doesn’t need it. In Countdown, characters hallucinate images of tragically deceased family members when they refuse to accept their fate, somehow forcing them to reckon with their own guilt and move on from the past. Haunt’s weighty substance is no subtler: Harper’s childhood trauma of living in a household with an abusive father comes up sporadically, only when it can be conveniently woven into a particularly tense moment. Neither film treats the material with the depth it deserves. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if either or both added the emotional beats post hoc after the recent success of other “elevated horror” movies, including Hereditary and Get Out. I put the term in quotes purposefully, because it’s the very use of it that can give these cheap-thrill horror flicks the inferiority complex that drives this sort of identity crisis. One of the few genres that has persisted across nearly a century of film history, horror has certainly evolved in form in recent years, but to claim a certain subgenre is “elevated” is to say it is better, and to therefore imply that all other subgenres should aspire to be like it. What makes Countdown so bad and Haunt’s first half so good has nothing to do with how they do or don’t capture the zeitgeist and plant themselves firmly in our cultural moment in time. They’re schlocky horror films. Haunt does schlock well, at least for a time, and Countdown doesn’t. The next iteration should focus a bit more on that, and a bit less on incorporating the latest, greatest trend in horror.