Saddled with some of the worst package art that I've ever seen, this US disc of The Haunting In Connecticut, from Lionsgate, is Region A-locked.
When the constant long-distance ferrying of her son to and from the clinic where he is being treated for cancer begins to take its toll on him and puts too much strain on herself and the rest of her family, Sara Campbell (Virginia Madsen) makes a sudden decision to move them all into a house much nearer. They can't really afford to do it, but for the sake of poor Matt (Kyle Gallner), it is a relocation that could very well save his life. Thus, like poor Arnie Cunningham just happening by the demonic Plymouth Fury in Stephen King's classic auto-horror Christine, a chance sighting of a “For Sale” sign going up outside a large Connecticut house draws her in and, all too soon, as with Arnie and his beloved and bedevilled car, she and her family will be plunged into a nightmare of ghostly visitations and violent possession that will threaten to tear them apart.
With a history of psychic activity and some unpleasant witchcraft having taken place down in its basement, it seems only fitting that the house was actually once a funeral parlour. Almost as soon as the family move in, Matt begins to see unpleasant things - weird phantom visions of bizarre rituals and the ever-present apparition of a badly burned boy - that may or may not be a side-effect of the revolutionary treatment that he is receiving. Day by day, his mental condition deteriorates and his behaviour becomes more erratic and unpredictable to the point when his own family feel that they cannot trust him. Little games with his younger brother and sister become almost threatening as Matt's personality alters. It seems clear that the presence of a spirit trapped within the house is beginning to possess him. Thus, the pressure that Sara sought to escape from intensifies, and when the strange goings-on in the house become much more than merely the hallucinations of a severely ill teenager, some detective work is called for, as well as the timely intervention of a convenient exorcist, played by Elias Koteas.
Virginia Madsen has certainly aged well, but her performance as the crusading, protective mother is tired, listless and by-the-numbers. I've never really thought a great deal of her as an actress post Bernard Rose's adaptation of Clive Barker's Candyman, so I wasn't really expecting all that much from her, anyway. Still, I would have liked some genuine emotion now and again during the story's more strained and anxious moments when mother/son relationships are pushed to their limits. She doesn't do anything wrong, you understand, she just doesn't manage to inject any authenticity or conviction into the part, beyond what is written in the script. Worse yet, is Martin Donovan as the father, Peter, who has bored TV actor written all over his face. A montage sequence that depicts the grief of both parents and how they each, separately, come to deal with it, epitomises the worst of either actor, and totally hits the wrong note, coming over as stock and contrived. Dad, especially, is terrible - unconvincing and bland, his recovering alcoholic has sure picked the wrong day to battle the bottle - with his only interesting scene revolving around a obsession for turning all the lights off whilst under the influence of some far more potent, and much more dangerous spirits of his own concoction. Both he and Madsen grumble and glare, respectively, but bring little else to a film that evidently wants us to care a great deal about the family.
Elias Koteas, who has seen satanic duty alongside Madsen in The Prophecy, actually offers a few interesting little moments. Also suffering from cancer, he meets Matt at the clinic and, sensing a situation of spiritual dilemma going on, offers his assistance to help clear the house. But, as Reverend Popescu, Koteas staggers too easily into the Rod Steiger mould of yelling “Get Out!” to an innocent family besieged by supernatural activity. His best bits are brief and frustratingly cut short just when they begin to get interesting. Whispered words of wisdom, however, seem to speak volumes and it is a shame that the script couldn't have found more for him to do. Although, it is always great when the so-called expert makes a serious blunder, and Koteas' Popescu cocks things up good-style at one point in a terrifically amusing “D'oh!” moment.
But it is young Kyle Gallner who almost saves the show, however, by turning in a surprisingly strong performance as the seriously troubled Matt. He really looks sick and elicits a fair bit of sympathy in a role that could so easily have been in the style of a weepie-of-the-week. Genuinely unnerved and freaked-out by the phenomena that he, alone, seems to witness, Matt is the focal point of the drama when so many other films would thrust most of our attention upon the female lead. We see most of the phenomena through his eyes and we see how it wastes and destroys him. A neat little device is that the more attuned to the house he becomes, the sicker he gets and, yet, the more determined he is unravel the cause and end the haunting, once and for all. When the cute Amanda Crew, as Matt's sister Wendy, eventually puts down her book down and joins in with the plot, she almost becomes another good character to root for. Playing detective with Matt, she uncovers more of the shivery history of the house - in another one of those corny montage sequences, this time set in a library, she absorbs a colossal amount of eerie evidence in one catch-all sitting - and looks set to join him in the fight. But then, perhaps living up her namesake of The Shining's Wendy, she must seek to protect the kids when a family member picks up an axe and decides to go a-chopping.
Allegedly based on a true story, that of the beleaguered Snedeker Family, The Haunting In Connecticut takes its cue from a TV documentary about their plight that spooked America, and the resulting book that sparked a critical backlash against their somewhat dubious account. With the cash-cow of The Amityville Horror proving a huge influence upon the direction and style that his film adaptation would take, young director Peter Cornwell and his writers Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe, can't help but sensationalise an already outlandish tale, adding all sorts of sordid past atrocities to the pot. Yet, whilst so much of what they bring to the story is daft, clichéd and lifted from countless other creep-fests, there is the germ of a good idea in here, somewhere. The fact that Matt is more susceptible to the ghosts because he closer to death than the others in the house, is almost as believable as it is grim and unsavoury. It makes a tragic kind of sense that he would be “open” to their presence and the ghastly limbo-land that they are trapped within. But once this little facet is introduced, Cornwell clearly has no idea where to go with it. Clouding Matt's mind with visions of terrible deeds and then arming him with an axe with which to attack another one of Hollywood's innocent doors is painfully contrived. Once his mission becomes clear to him, Matt's part in all of this becomes annoyingly trite to the rest of us, and no matter how well he performs as a young man teetering on the borderland between life and death, Gallner's misunderstood heroics quickly lose steam.
The film is one of those that thrives on a multitude of snap-cut flashbacks that teasingly showcase ghostly memories of the house's past horrors. Even if a nice touch is to show these scenes with a sepia tint, capturing the sickly style of the vintage photographs depicting the funeral parlour's various cadavers and their relatives, we've seen this done a hundred times over and although it is a necessary thematic device, the impression given is nothing other than the same old-hat technique being dragged out all over again. Nor does it help matters when these segments are jarringly edited and often distorted for effect. It also makes the now-juvenile mistake of showing us things lurking in the background that the main characters have not noticed, but insisting on over-labouring the point with a glaring audio-grab sound-jolt. The thing is that this scare tactic would actually work a little more effectively if there was no sound effect shoehorned-in, the scene just playing out in a “did you see that ... or did you just imagine it?” type of fashion. Cliché and formula are the sad baggage that make up ninety per cent of such genre fodder, though. And, of course, done right - with the appropriate mood, tension and character empathy to back them up - they can still work spectacularly well. But Connecticut lacks the courage to break new ground and even its most rudimentary scares eventually come to feel pedestrian and shorn of vigour. A spectral tussle with a shower curtain is giggly rather than ghastly. An ectoplasmic-rife seance just lapses into farce when poor CG makes a character look like they are vomiting in zero-gravity - yep, that's the laughable picture on the disc packaging, folks. The all-too-obvious encounter in the dumb-waiter is just further proof - if ever it were needed - that playing hide and seek in a spooky old house (The Sixth Sense, The Innocents) is never a good idea ... unless, of course, the wardrobe you've tucked yourself into leads all the way to Narnia. The setting is great, though, but you just have to question why anybody would elect to sleep in a basement that has one half sectioned off behind a curious wall of dusted-over glass and a spectrally locked door.
Old houses with dark and troubled histories are, of course, a staple ingredient of the horror genre. But for every classic example of the form - The Shining, The Haunting, Poltergeist, The Innocents, The Orphanage - there are a dozen or so squalid cash-ins - Amityville 3D, Burnt Offerings, 13 Ghosts, House On Haunted Hill etc - but Cornwell's film eases itself into a slot somewhere in the middle. Unsavoury medical practices smack of Brad Anderson's great Session 9, Fulci's The House By The Cemetery and the aforementioned Haunted Hill opus, and the echoing misery and rage of wronged spectres is not unlike the phantom menace (ahem) witnessed in Michael Winner's The Sentinel. But, if anything, this is just a pick 'n' mix of former genre glories. A dash of Lovecraftian necromancy only serves to confuse the issue and possibly makes you long for some monstrous and gory interludes. A box of clipped eyelids and those skin-doodles are about your lot.
On the plus side, the film is well-mounted and technically proficient. Peter Cornwell likes his shadows. He positively lavishes them all over the house like vast inky drapes. Stairways, halls, bedrooms and especially that bizarre basement are veritable shadow palaces and although this does help provide some atmospheric scenes, the mood, overall, is one of gloom, rather than of menace. He directs in a rather flat fashion, there are no elaborate set-pieces, and the film treads quite a quite conventional path for much of the time. But his style is enhanced by the interesting cinematography from Adam Swika that probes dark corners, traps characters in fragile shafts of light and creates some fine compositions. The effects are reasonable, though not overly elaborate or even all that shocking. Burn make-up and scarred flesh are the order of the day, yet even here, when we are finally allowed to see the charred ghoul within those smothering shadows, the latex appliances seem surprisingly tame. One decent-looking, but still rather pointless, recurring visual motif is of skin scored with a blade until the body is covered with runic symbols, Latin text and medieval incantations. This recalls Rod Steiger in The Illustrated Man, Arnie in Conan The Barbarian and, erm, Sam Neill's possessed scientist in Event Horizon, but there is also a vague touch of Hellraiser about this evil, fleshy work of art, too, though the film doesn't penetrate the grotesque beauty of such devilish design-work beyond the purely decorative.
Composer Robert J. Kral is a solid choice, though he is more versed in short-burst works for the likes of animated movies Batman: Gotham Knight, Superman Doomsday and Green Lantern: First Flight (BD review coming soon) and numerous TV shows than he is for longer, more sophisticated projects like a full-length horror film. However, his score for Cornwell's film is suitably deep, dark and distressing. However, the mood he creates is one of tainted ambience, a sort of sickened, tonal meander that dumps melody for urgent cacophony and becomes all-too reliant upon on musical stingers. Then again, he delivers quite a poignant lament during the final act that goes some way to tapping into emotions that the rest of film struggles to attain.
In essence there is nothing wrong with The Haunting In Connecticut. It does exactly what is says on the tin and packs in all the usual “stingers”, jolts and shocks. The initial flashbacks that have been spliced into the opening credits seem to indicate that the gore will be a little bit more extreme than most conventional haunting pictures, but this soon peters-out, with even the unrated edition of the film (only running for a few seconds longer than the PG-13 theatrical cut) failing to add anything new or nasty to the genre that we may have been able to enjoy. Whatever the truth of the original story, Cornwell's film, as solid as it is, comes across mainly as a pick 'n' mix of all your favourite elements from a slew of much better haunted house outings. It may keep your attention until the end, but this is only because of Gallner's strong performance. The horror is as forgettable as the basic premise. It may be based on an allegedly true story, but the events are as familiar and run-of-the-mill as any to be found in an already heaving haunted house genre.
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