For those of us growing up in the '70s, there was one seminal, supposedly true, scary story. No, it wasn't Helter Skelter or the trumped-up Texas Chainsaw Massacre. No, in high school cafeterias everywhere, we teens were talking about George and Kathy Lutz and their 1977 journey into red-eyed demonic pig terror, The Amityville Horror. The novel was a post-modern masterwork, a complete con passing itself off as irrefutable "fictional" reality. Now comes The Haunting in Connecticut, a similarly-styled exercise culled from a novel, plus an episode of the always trustworthy TV show from the Discovery Channel. Oddly enough, it's another network -- Lifetime -- that sets the tone for this tepid terror tale.
Ever since he was diagnosed with cancer, life has been a struggle for Matt Campbell (Kyle Gallner). While his recovering alcoholic Dad (Martin Donovan) tries to maintain house and home, well-meaning Mom (Virginia Madsen) drives several hours to Connecticut to try an experimental technique which offers some hope. The toll on the teen is too great, however, so Mom eventually moves the family to an old dilapidated house so he can be closer to his doctors. Almost immediately, weird things start happening. The building creaks and odd ethereal noises are heard. Soon, Matt is seeing spirits and discovering the facilities for a funeral home in the basement. As dark forces torment him and the rest of the Campbell clan, Reverend Nicholas Popescu (Elias Koteas) tries to save them from the evil forces festering in this psychically charged dwelling with a terrifying, telling history. Article continues below
Let's get one thing straight right up front -- when you move into a former funeral parlor, complete with intact embalming room, crematorium, and sťance-drenched legacy, you should expect a little paranormal activity, right? If you didn't get a heaping helping of problematic poltergeists and demon disturbances, you'd ask for your escrow money back. Apparently, the notion of living where the dead used to be preserved (and in this case, desecrated in confusing, ambiguous psychic rituals) holds no sway over the Campbell family. They're too busy sniping at each other and worrying about young Matt's rampaging illness to let stories of a young boy, his wicked mortician boss, and the evil acts they committed get in the way.
Australian novice Peter Cornwell can crow all he wants about this tale's veracity, but there's more legitimacy in your average urban legend than in the entire 100 minutes of this flimsy excuse for false shocks. Granted, we do feel the unsettling atmosphere of this converted death palace, and there are times when a sense of dread starts sneaking up on us. But then the first time feature filmmaker ruins it all by telegraphing his scares with the standard combination of menacing music cues, obvious framing, and drawn-out dramatic pauses. If something didn't go "boo" after all that, the audience would feel completely ripped off. Too bad Cornwell overcompensates while ignoring everything else that could possibly be horrific about this situation.
Indeed, the real shame about The Haunting in Connecticut is that a decent premise is totally wasted via a dimwitted, dialed down PG-13 execution. It's the same with Amityville and other "true" haunted house films as well. You have to balance seriousness and skepticism, giving the viewer a chance to put themselves in the place of the characters and indentify with the fright. By constantly stopping the shivers to delve into Matt's disease, the father's potential relapse, and the mother's obsession over both, we experience the equivalent of being dragged out in the cold, clarifying rays of the sun. The accuracy of this tale will always be suspect. The facts of its subpar cinematic translation are beyond reproach.