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The appeal of many films in the horror genre is the settings in which they take place, a long running staple that sees filmmakers ever crafting their stories around peculiar homes, mansions, academies, and more, each, in the right hands, becoming a kind of character of their own. With this latest in the horror-thriller film, Havenhurst, the building is the horror, a kind of sin-checker house that keeps tenants on the up-and-up, or else. The premise is catchy and there are some genuine good moments, even if it starts to disappoint as it reaches its end.
It begins with one such tenant, Danielle (Danielle Harris), apparently not on the straight and narrow as she ends up swallowed up the elevator shaft, never to be seen again. This prompts her best friend Jackie (Julie Benz), a recovering alcoholic and neglectful parent who is looking for a fresh start on her own, to look for answers. After her counselor refers her to Havenhurst, she ends up assigned to her friend’s apartment. Using the opportunity, she moves into the furnished place while secretly investigating what happened to Danielle with a detective named Tim (Josh Stamberg).
Things are creepy right from the start for Jackie, with the building super, Ezra (Matt Lasky) looming about with accusing eyes, and then a meeting with his mother Elanor (Fionnula Flanagan), the building owner who runs the apartment as a rehabilitation home for those in need. She makes it clear that anyone is welcome to the healing walls of the building for the rest of their lives but stray even a bit and their stay is terminated. Jackie comes to find out that she means it quite literally.
Written and directed by Andrew C. Erin, Havenhurst likes its mystery as much as its horror, attempting to spin a sort of puzzle-like story out of the admittedly intriguing premise, especially in the first half as it rolls out its numerous troubling characters and their shortcomings, of which some are truly decrepit. The house acts as a sort of ultimate cleanser that sees a single infraction as reason to unleash the most capital of punishments, the whole estate rigged up like a death trap waiting for victims to slip off the path of righteousness.
The harbinger of all this is Jed (Douglas Tait), a lurching, pale-skinned, hellion decked out in all the expected horror sadomasochist accouterment who maintains a sort of basement abattoir, severely punishing those who break the rules. And it’s for this reason that Jackie takes to doing so in hopes of solving the mystery. She’s befriended by a little girl named Sarah (Belle Shouse), the foster child of one of the tenants who, like Newt in Aliens (1986) survives the horrors by knowing all the secret passageways and lay of the land.
The film actually has some decent mystery to it and the investigative angles are clever, but there are issues, especially with its all too obvious themes of sinners and Hell and some lapses in logic. There’s a decided lack of momentum as the story progresses as well, and as the puzzles unravel, interest wanes as clichés persist and a generic last act has the film abandoning smarts for hunt and hunter slasher standards. The booby-trapped house becomes increasingly more contrived and while Erin sets up some good sequences, the repeated shots of a steadily slow-approaching stalker and its accompanying overly bombastic score begin to weigh.
That said, Havenhurst does have some surprises, with a few moments that play into the genre well, and there is a sense that Erin might be toying with the tropes that have come to define the like even as he indulges. How else to explain Flanagan’s almost parodic performance? There is an ending that for most will be easy to spot well before it happens and looks to set up a sequel (of course), but it also feels just about run out of ideas at the same time, leaving it to become more like the Saw franchise than something more impactful (*Note, the film is produced by the makers of Saw). A decent horror distraction, this is just what is aims to be.