While 2019 has brought us some notable aquatic horrors, it looks like the late summer actually belongs to clowns. From Gags to It: Chapter Two to Clownado and now Haunt, “hot girl summer” should be rebranded “creepy clown summer.”
Haunt takes place over one Halloween night. Harper (Katie Stevens) is coaxed by her friends to go to a party, despite her lack of a costume. There, she meets Nathan (Will Brittain) who seems like a nice enough, non-threatening boy. The detail of him feeling safe to her is quite important considering that we’ve already seen Harper covering up a black eye with makeup, and her ex, Sam (Samuel Hunt), may be stalking her.
A fun night at a bar might qualify as a successful Halloween to most, but not to these college kids. The group decide to head out to a haunted attraction, and only the most extreme one will do. When a random flyer promises real frights, they pile into a minivan and head out of the city. What they find is a single warehouse and a silent clown guiding them to surrender their phones.
At first, the haunt proceeds as expected. Flying skeletons, masked characters, blacklights, you know the drill. When the group get split into two and the rooms become more elaborate, it becomes clear that this is much more than a typical scare for kids. As the deaths and maiming start, it’s even clearer that they will have to fight for their lives to survive the haunt.
Never quite resting on the premise of a haunted house gone bad, Haunt dares to wade into the realm of horror that features character development on both sides of the masks. Harper’s history as a woman who has dealt with abuse goes far beyond her immediate past with Sam, and through invasive flashbacks we learn the emotional effects of her childhood. This is all shown to contextualize her character’s behavior and propel her growth, not just as a cheap exploitation of shorthand for a “complicated” woman or victim. Haunt is empathetic to Harper and gets us all rooting for her to not just survive, but to thrive.
Perhaps most interestingly, we get to know the people dressed as clowns a little too. We never get close enough to shift the focus of the film off the targets of the clowns’ ire, but it’s fascinating to take a peek behind their masks. Their motivations and the power dynamics amongst their group enhance the world of the haunt and add to the terror the audience feels by knowing more than the trapped college kids. In the case of Haunt, the monster you do know is far scarier than the one you don’t.
Haunt is a little smarter and a lot more fun than the clownish makeup featured on the posters. It’s a step beyond the typical horror flick, and a step in the right direction for coulrophobia.