Saturday, March 28, 2009
The Haunting in Connecticut opens with Sara Campbell (Virginia Madsen), silhouetted with a movie slate marking the scene. The shot looks like the set up for interviews in the Discovery Channel show, and the character begins her story by saying that we probably want to know why bad things happen to good people. In this version of the story, the son Paul (Kyle Gallner) is older and has cancer. The family moves into the old house and he's the only one who initially has any contact with the spirits or demons within the house. A priest (Elias Kosteas) who's also dying of cancer suggests to Paul that because he is near death and is able to see these spirits and is more susceptible to them. Paul and the priest eventually discover that the man who ran the funeral home worked with a young spiritualist and to increase the boy's powers he did some unpleasant things to corpses. All this leads to the priest offering to exorcise the house.
A makeshift seance in The Haunting in Connecticut (Lionsgate)
Whether you believe that this film is based on real events will depend on how skeptical you are. (Check out this Skeptical Inquiry or this Hartford article for some perspectives on the case.) The paranormal investigators involved in the real case, Ed and Lorraine Warren, were the ones involved in the Amityville house (which became two movies entitles The Amityville Horror ), a haunting case that has been debunked as a hoax. But The Haunting in Connecticut embraces it as a true tale in the hopes of finding a bigger audience and tapping into people's interest in the supernatural. The film downplays the exorcism angle, not bringing in the Catholic church but rather having the cancer ridden priest come out in an unofficial capacity to help rid the house of its evil demons. That's probably a wise move. But one detail from the Discovery Channel doc that's left out was that there was a large freezer in the old funeral home - presumably for the cadavers - that the mom ends up using to store food. So that created stressful conditions for the kids when they had to go and get food for dinner out of the corpse freezer.
But the film, written by Tim Metcalfe and Paul Brooks and directed by newcomer Peter Cornwell, makes some other bad choices. For one, it tries too hard to be more than a ghost story. It unsuccessfully tries to develop the characters and the family beyond mere types. The intention is good but the results are not. Scenes of Sara dealing with her grief over Paul's illness and talking to God turn out to be more laughable than moving. And a side plot with her husband's alcoholism also feels like a waste of time because it's so thinly drawn and adds nothing to the story. A drunken rage about all the lights being on in the house ends up being laughable because sleeping with the lights on is the first smart thing anyone in the family starts to do after all the freakiness begins. But the seriousness with which Cornwell has everyone play the scene makes it seem like a bad after school special on alcohol abuse.
"Why are all the damn lights on!" Martinn Donovan is wasted in The Haunting in Connecticut (Lionsgate)
Where the film succeeds is in some early scenes depicting the funeral home in flashbacks (delaing with both corpses and a seance) and the demons in their early encounters with Paul. I don't want to spoil anything but let me just say that what they do with eyelids made me even want to look away. The corpses, who come back to haunt Paul, are also depicted in chilling fashion. But the more we learn and the more that's revealed, the less successful the film becomes.
The Haunting in Connecticut (rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of terror and disturbing images) is a middling attempt at supernatural horror. It has a couple of well-tuned moments of creepiness but not much beyond that. Maybe if it had gone in with a more skeptical attitude with a style more grounded in the real world it could have found a more interesting approach to familiar material (something maybe akin to Roman Polanski approach to his satanic tale of Rosemary's Baby ). Or if it had taken the other extreme and went more wholeheartedly for a demon tale with a more Dario Argento over the top embrace of the horrors of that demon world maybe it could have scored some style points. As it stands it's just okay and a decent rental for a night home alone. The most exciting thing about the film was the trailer for Sami Raimi's return to horror, Drag me to Hell .
Companion viewing: The Amityville Horror, The Entity, An American Haunting, The Haunting (1960), Rosemary's Baby