The Haunting in Connecticut
Director : Peter Cornwell
Screenplay : Adam Simon & Tim Metcalfe
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Virginia Madsen (Sara Campbell), Kyle Gallner (Matt Campbell), Elias Koteas (Reverend Popescu), Amanda Crew (Wendy), Martin Donovan (Peter Campbell), Sophi Knight (Mary Campbell), Ty Wood (Billy Campbell), Erik J. Berg (Jonah), John Bluethner (Ramsey Aickman), D.W. Brown (Dr. Brooks), John B. Lowe (Mr. Sinclair)
Like The Amityville Horror, The Haunting in Connecticut is based on a supposedly true account of a suburban American haunting, which in this case has already been covered in both a 1992 book by Ray Garton and a 2002 Discovery Channel docudrama. However, the filmmakers (or perhaps the marketing department honchos) are even more resolutely insistent on the story’s veracity--note the use of the definitive article “The” in the title (changed from the Discovery Channel episode, which used “A”), which is also reflected in the opening disclaimer that the film is based on not just “a true story,” but “the true story,” which I supposed means that no other Connecticut hauntings are possible. It’s all smoke and mirrors, of course, as even half an hour of research will quickly reveal that the majority the story has been invented entirely by screenwriters Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe (who last collaborated on 2001’s Bones, a horror movie starring Snoop Dog), perhaps in homage to Garton, who admitted to making up most of his supposedly “nonfiction” book at the behest of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, who were also involved in the Amityville case.
Thankfully, the truthfulness of the story has little or nothing to do with how well the film works, and while it relies on a lot of conventional horror devices and familiar ideas, it still works at times as an effectively creepy chiller that loses its way only near the end when it starts getting too sensationalistic for its own good. Part of what makes the story work as well as it does is its grounding in real-life trauma. That is, the supernatural terrors heighten what is already a stressful situation, in this case a family with a cancer-stricken teenager that is also battling the demons of alcoholism and general stress. The realism with which the family is treated makes their torment by supernatural forces that much more emotionally wrenching.
The film opens with Sara Campbell (Virginia Madsen) driving her teenage son Matt (Kyle Gallner) hundreds of miles to a cancer specialist in Connecticut, after which she decides that the family, which also includes a younger brother (Ty Wood) and a twentysomething niece (Amanda Crew) and her young daughter (Sophi Knight), needs to move closer to avoid the stresses of the long commute. This does not sit well with her husband, Peter (Martin Donovan), who outlines the obvious financial pressures of maintaining two households. The family ends up moving anyway, taking up residence in an old, rambling whiteboard house in Southington, Connecticut, which they are able to lease for a song because, as the real estate agent puts it, the house has “a history.”
It isn’t long before that “history” is revealed: the house used to be a funeral home, and the basement that Matt chooses as his bedroom was where corpses were taken to be embalmed. The space in which the mortuary work was done is at first hidden behind a locked door and opaque glass windows, but soon it is revealed in all its creepy glory, complete with a surgical table, crematorium, cobwebby jars of embalming fluid, and plenty of scalpels and bone saws. That is just the beginning, though, as some further research unearths other happenings in the house, including séances that supposedly went beyond just contacting the dead. All of this is connected to increasingly intrusive paranormal incidents, which begins with the film’s most striking shot of Matt switching of his television to reveal the reflection of a hunched-over man standing in the doorway behind him. Such subtle frights quickly give way to more blatantly traumatizing incidents, which include Matt’s being able to see the house’s previous occupants, mop water turning into blood, the sound of birds fluttering through the house, and eventually Matt being physically assaulted, if not possessed, but evil spirits. The family’s one hope lies in Reverend Popescu (Elias Koteas), a priest who is also dying of cancer and so, like Matt, is closer to death and therefore more attuned to its presence among the living.
First-time feature director Peter Cornwell keeps the tension pitched throughout the film, and he does an admirable job of sustaining a balance between the supernatural horrors and the everyday tensions of life and death that make the family so much more vulnerable (a scene in which the father comes home drunk and angrily demands to know why everyone is sleeping with the lights on is both darkly comical and also unnerving in its suggestions of familial violence). There are plenty of standard-issue scares, most of which involve something suddenly appearing in the frame accompanied by a crash of music, but it is the build-up that really works. The film’s production designers did an good job of creating spaces that feel old and worn out, and the film will get under the skin of anyone who has ever been in an older house and wondered what might have been hidden behind the walls or under the floorboards. Unfortunately, though, the film just keeps escalating until we have spewing ectoplasm, spilling bodies, and fiery infernos, all of which would be fine it were treated with Dario Argento-style outlandishness rather than the grim seriousness that makes it all too easy to mock, true or not.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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