Movie Review: The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)

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After the film producer Andrew Trapani caught a 2003 televised account of what has become known as “The Haunting in Connecticut” that chronicled the horrifying experience dealing with “paranormal attacks [which] occurred in a span of months to different members of [the] family,” of Carmen Reed he knew he had the makings of not just a movie but the type PG-13 chilling fare Lionsgate has excelled at in recent years.

While Roger Ebert notes that In a Dark Place author Ray Garton-- who chronicled the case within his book-length work-- realized that the family in question “couldn't get their stories straight,” as Wikipedia explained, investigators nonetheless “instructed [him] to make it up and make it scary."

However, this bit of questioning aside-- the film version of The Haunting in Connecticut is going to great lengths in trying to work the fact that it's based on a historically documented case of the forefront of that advertising campaign. And in doing so, Connecticut's cinematic structure follows suit as director Peter Cornwell begins the movie as though it were a docudrama which keeps us hooked for awhile until about midway through we gets the sense that we're not quite buying into the experience as though it was gospel.

Pairing together screenwriters Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe (self-proclaimed “students of Victorian horror and the Spiritualist movement”) along with award-winning short film maker Peter Cornwell (who directed the animated work Ward 13)-- the film which holds audiences at a distance in the dark, ominous, foreboding color scheme, cinematography, and “make you jump” musical cues is given instant credibility with the appearance of Oscar nominated actress Virginia Madsen (Sideways).

The versatile and talented Ms. Madsen-- who admits likewise in the press release to not just a love of movies but especially scary movies (having gained “cult status among the horror fans” after appearing in Candyman)-- portrays the devoted, religious, and selfless mother Sara Campbell in a uniformly terrific characterization.

When her cancer stricken son Matt (Kyle Gallner) is accepted into an experimental, highly risky, exceedingly expensive, and physically draining radical treatment program, Madsen's Sara makes the decision to move her family temporarily to a Victorian rental home closer to the hospital during the duration.

Of course, the house gives viewers the creeps right off the bat as the owner catches sight of Sara as she drives by and tells her hill give her the first month's rent free if he doesn't have to finish pounding the sign in the yard before warning her that the place has “a bit of a history." And within seconds of their arrival we start realizing that the history is one involving death, dismemberment, and gore.

As Matt begins to have visions of ghosts in the house, sealed rooms reveal that it was previously a funeral parlor, photos of corpses are found, and a box of eyelids are discovered—he tries to hide some of the bizarre goings-on and paranormal phenomena from his worried mother, siblings, cousin, along with his overworked recovering alcoholic father (Martin Donovan). His reasoning for doing so is logical and sound since his doctor had warned that if he’d started “seeing things” or experienced behavioral changes, they must stop the treatment immediately.

Unfortunately, it’s this issue precisely that pervades a great majority of the film as for a good bulk of the work, the suffering, incessantly ill, overly medicated, and emaciated Matt is the only one who witnesses the creepy goings-on firsthand and we're unsure if he's the most reliable of witnesses.

When he befriends an equally sick reverend (Elias Koteas) who argues that because they’re walking between life and the shadow of death, they’re able to pick up on ghostly activity that’s trapped between worlds (although they should “fear no evil” he says with a straight face, twenty minutes before he’s doing an exorcism), the movie ventures from ghost story into spiritual, supernatural thriller to mixed effect.

Admittedly, the back-story of the home itself is incredibly squirm-inducing and there were a few audible screams during the press screening-- most notably as we discover its involvement in séances, corpse-tampering, black magic and more in a few horrifyingly intense sequences including the poster’s disgusting “ectoplasm” sequence and one involving the aforementioned eyelids that make the PG-13 rating seem a tad weak.

Despite this, later the movie becomes increasingly dubious as a work of fact as it spirals to a conclusion that one could only call silly wherein characters act in ways that don’t seem to fit their personalities in the slightest as Cornwell’s Connecticut leaves the occult for cheap scares befitting of the genre with the obligatory and laugh-inducing, “heroine in the shower” moment complete with a potentially life-saving phone call bearing an all-important message that’s left on an answering machine.

Likewise, it’s hard not to acknowledge that quite a few scenes would be extremely hard to verify as scientific fact which makes the filmmakers’ decision to bookend it again with Madsen’s voice-over and a wrap-up of post-paranormal events seem like a strange fit. Moreover, the eerie Victorian séance stuff would’ve made one hell of a creepy Lionsgate “seat jumper” if the filmmakers had been given the freedom to move away from the trappings of what they describe as a fiercely “true story” and just focus specifically on the back-story which is more effective ultimately than the one being played out during the film’s setting of the summer of 1987.