31 March 2009

The Haunting in Connecticut

The Haunting in Connecticut

The Haunting in Connecticut is "based on the true story," but that matters little to me. Wherever its origins lie, a movie lives or dies on its own merits. Even if the events depicted actually happened, a movie should be well acted, intelligently written and competently filmed to be worth your time and money.

Too often, I feel, movies—particularly in the horror genre (think The Amityville Horror)—use the "based on the true story" preface as a crutch, as if it somehow adds weight and importance.

Back to The Haunting in Connecticut.

There are the beginnings of a good movie here. The cast is exceptional for the genre—Virginia Madsen, the Candyman actress returning to horror after rising to respectability with Sideways, as Sara Campbell, a mother desperately trying to hold her family together; Martin Donovan as her husband, Peter, a recovering alcoholic who hears the bottle calling him back; Kyle Gallner, known to a few for the late, great TV series Veronica Mars, as Matt, the teenage son dying of cancer; and Elias Koteas, unheralded yet one of our best character actors, as a fellow cancer patient, a priest who might be able to explain the supernatural events that occur.

There are also two young children—a son, Billy (Ty Wood), and a girl, Mary (Sophi), whose relation to the rest of the family I must have missed—and a cousin, Wendy (Amanda Crew), who serves as a live-in babysitter and stars in the requisite shower scene.

The family moves from New York to Connecticut so Matt can be closer to the hospital where he receives treatment, Sara impulsively renting an imposing old house that, years ago, served as a mortuary. I wonder if she would have thought it through a little more had she come across the old photos of corpses and the box of human eyelids sooner.

Matt takes the spooky house's even spookier basement as his room and starts seeing things, specifically a boy, Jonah (Erik J. Berg), who the previous owner used as a medium for his seances, and said previous owner doing things untoward to the bodies he is supposed to be laying to rest.

So what we have is a cross between a family melodrama and an old-fashioned haunted house story. Unfortunately, the family aspect, especially the father's slide off the wagon, is not given enough time to develop. On the other end, director Peter Cornwell (whose resume includes the intriguingly-titled Post-Apocalyptic Pizza, an entry in the Xbox Live Horror Meets Comedy short film series, and a stop-motion horror short called Ward 13) is more interested in "BOO!" moments—all punctuated by the obligatory musical sting—than sustaining tension. The frequent "suprises" easily undo the work that goes into building a mood.

The star of the movie is the house created by production designer Alicia Keywan. It's a creepy place that you would have to be desperate in a my-child-is-dying kind of way to even think about inhabiting.

The proper pieces are in place. If screenwriters Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe had placed Koteas' priest front and center, and if Cornwell had downplayed the "scares," The Haunting in Connecticut might have been something special.

NOTE: If it matters to you, the "true story" claim is, according to Wikipedia, dubious. The "psychic investigators" who claim to have cleared the old house in Southington, Conn., of its demonic presence with a seance allegedly told the author of the book on which the movie is based "to just make up the story and make it scary."

Grade: C

(Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of terror and disturbing images. 92 minutes.)

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