"There is something evil in this house, something no longer living
and not yet passed over...and it wants your son."
No one's quite sure exactly where America's favorite family actually lives, but my money is on Springfield, Connecticut. Hear me out:
Demonic voice: "Get out!"
Marge: "What on earth was that?!"
Homer: "Probably just the house settling."
I wonder if the Snedeker family--and the filmmakers behind The Haunting in Connecticut--are fans of The Simpsons. In the fall of 1990, the TV show aired the first of its brilliant "Treehouse of Horror" episodes, which included a haunted house parody ("Bad Dream House") that still stands as one of my favorite moments of the series. It aired just a few years after the Snedekers moved out of their supposedly haunted house, and would have made great research material for people needing to come up with a good story.
I can forgive the family, but the filmmakers? Not so much. When a parody made nearly 20 years ago perfectly points out the flaws in your film, something is seriously wrong. Hasn't the genre grown in creativity during the last two decades, or are we stuck with the same old clichés?
In the bonus features for The Haunting in Connecticut, co-screenwriter Adam Simon jokes about how the industry's overuse of a popular marketing tactic may have been partially responsible for the Snedeker family's hesitancy to embrace a feature film based on their lives: "Especially these days, people play pretty fast and loose with the 'Based on a true story!', 'Inspired by true events!', 'Loosely reminiscent of something that once happened to a guy named Joe!'" he says. "There are 50,000 different ways of saying this."
And yet here I was, my interest piqued just enough by that descriptor to give this 2009 feature film--based on supposedly true events from the late 1980s--a shot. If Discovery Channel was intrigued enough to create a 2002 documentary/re-enactment based on the same case--which then became the inspiration for this film--there had to be something to it, right? Who cares if the film was shot in Canada? (Somehow, The Haunting in Winnipeg sounds even less ominous).
The film focuses on the renamed Campbell family, which is already down on its luck long before moving into a new home. Son Matt (Kyle Gallner, soon to be seen in genre pics Jennifer's Body and 2010's A Nightmare on Elm Street remake) is losing his battle with cancer. That prompts mom Sara (Virginia Madsen) to look for a second home to shorten their lengthy hospital commutes, which have also taken a toll on her marriage to alcoholic husband Peter (Martin Donovan). She finds a home that seems too good to be true: "It's perfect! It's spacious and affordable. I'm just wondering, where's the catch?" she asks her potential landlord. "Well," he warns, "it does have a bit of a history."
But Sara decides to take the plunge anyway, moving in with Matt and three more family members: younger son Billy (Ty Wood) and nieces Wendy (Amanda Crew) and Mary (Sophi Knight). Matt gets first dibs on a room, and he picks the spacious basement that has one peculiarity: a mysterious locked door surrounded by dark windows that no one can see through. Sara soon makes a discovery: The residence used to be a funeral home, and when the family finally breaks through the door, an embalming room frozen in time awaits.
That might explain the odd visions that have started to plague Matt, whose starts to lose his grip on reality--not only does he see ghosts, but a few odd outbursts hint at a possession. The rest of the family begins to notice things, too, prompting Wendy to help Matt research the house's history--which includes a proprietor of questionable ethics and a séance gone very, very wrong. With no one to turn to, Matt calls for help from a revered (Elias Koteas) who believes in "the other side".
In the spirit of full disclosure, I'm not easily entertained by otherworldly horror films--hauntings, ghosts, possessions, demons...they rarely do the trick for me. It's the more earthly horrors that usually entertain me, and those films have a much better shot at scaring me. I'm not really a believer in the beyond, but I do believe in madmen with machetes chasing me though the woods. The Exorcist? Yeah...sorry, but no thanks (don't hate!).
While I'm a lot harder to please in this genre, it has been done: I enjoyed The Others, even with its copycat twist; I loved the Dark Water remake, in large part because of Jennifer Connelly's convincing performance; and Session 9 actually kind of spooked me. Then there's a collection of films (good, mediocre and bad) that terrified me when I was younger: The Shining, The Amityville Horror, Burnt Offerings, Poltergeist and (can you believe it?) The Legacy (!), which frequently aired on TV and stuck with me (the malfunctioning front gate, the shower, the pool...it gave me nightmares!).
So I'm always up for giving supernatural flicks a chance. But The Haunting in Connecticut brings absolutely nothing new to the genre, plodding through a predictable path and playing like a horde of other haunted house films pasted together. There's nothing inspired or original here, perhaps partially the result of director Peter Cornwell's lack of feature film experience (his first work, the short film Ward 13, gets a cameo here). Try as hard as I might, I just couldn't get into this Haunting.
The film makes a number of missteps right out of the gate. While the thought of a medicated patient possibly going crazy--or even having a special power that gives him a window into the world between life and death--has potential, Cornwell (and writers Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe) leaves little to the imagination. The ghosts appear before the family moves in, so we know Matt isn't just seeing things--something reinforced throughout the film when apparitions appear outside of his presence. There's no guesswork, not even a hint of doubt.
There's also no build up--we quickly jump into the intended scares, which is a huge mistake. We're given no time to settle into the characters or the house, so there's no level of care or comfort. That negates the impact of what follows, and not even the talented cast can make up for it. Despite the film's intent, these characters (while decently acted) aren't as richly drawn and likeable as they should be--the film relies far too much on Matt's condition for sympathy, and most of the dialogue is empty. There's no genuine feeling, just a mechanical script masquerading as meaningful. And the bulk of the supporting cast--especially the three other kids (yes, even Wendy)--are throwaway roles.
And once the "scares" arrive, watch out: They fly fast and furious, with few connecting scenes to give them any power. It just doesn't make sense: The family goes through hell, yet they stay put. The characters don't seem to really care about their predicament--and the script never addresses it--so you stop caring for them (hide and seek again?! Really?!). When Wendy bites into a suddenly rotten apple near the end--a random bit inserted between a bunch of other loud, pointless filler--I gave up (oh, you want to take a shower now, Wendy?! Please die already!).
A string of similar scenes are carelessly thrown in (apparition here! vision there!) without any attention to common sense or believable human behavior. Marge Simpson had more sense than Sara: "Children, get your coats! We're leaving this house right now...I'm not going to live in a house of evil just to save a few dollars!"
It's all about quick tricks, a haunted house paint-by-numbers with far too many familiar scenes (Scary medical procedures on sick kid? Check! Rearranged chairs spooking mom? Check! Clergyman performing exorcism? Check! Protagonist going crazy with ax? Check!). And the predictable back story slowly unfolds in sepia-tone flashbacks with zero surprise--and includes an effect (spoiled on that box and in previous marketing material) that epitomizes why so many supernatural thrillers have no effect on me; there's a reason you don't use the word "ectoplasm" in a horror film if you want to be taken seriously, and it's called Ghostbusters. (I'm guessing I have Shutter to thank for my desensitization to spirit photography, and the dumbwaiter scene in Halloween: H20 was so much cooler).
Everything is surprisingly stale, and the director throws too much at us too fast. Haunting just wants to make you jump, logic be damned. But with haunted house films, you need subtly, something this movie severely lacks. There's nothing slow, steady and spooky...it's all fast, loud and quick. That's evidenced by the overly shrill score, which is marked by an abundance of obvious musical cues so loud and annoying that they ruin a few shots that would otherwise be effective.
The film is certainly high quality from a technical standpoint, and there are plenty of artful yet eerie images and sequences that have an impact (although two of my favorite moments were spoiled: the TV shadow was ruined by the trailer, and the stalking of Sara as the light flickers was ruined by editing). Gallner sells the pain nicely (and he certainly has the wounded puppy dog look down pat), making for a good victim; but while I love Madsen, she doesn't have much to do here.
If you're up for a haunted house flick, there's better stuff out there to satisfy your fix. Hell, even the Amityville remake was better than this...and not just because it had a shirtless Ryan Reynolds. Ummm...shirtless Ryan Reynolds! (/Homer Simpson voice)
This unrated cut sports the same 102 minute running time as the fullscreen theatrical edition; Cornwell notes in the audio commentary that most of that comes in the form of more graphic autopsy footage, including a bit with eyelids. The insertions are very quick snippets, and I didn't find anything to be too shocking; it still feels like a PG-13 film.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is strong. The film is very dark, and relies on lots of blue and green hues. Some minor grain exists, and the black levels weren't as pristine as they could be, but overall it's a satisfying effort.
The 5.1 track is outstanding, and uses the full range of channels for sounds both subtle and strong--maybe too strong at times, as the dialogue can't always keep up (but it's never bad). Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
A healthy dose of extras accompany the film. Regardless of what I think of them, the effort is strong (if you like the film, you'll like these). Two Dead Boys: The Making of The Haunting in Connecticut (14:05, in lower quality video) talks with the cast and crew about the film's origin, development, casting, special effects--and the apparently haunted hotel they all stayed in. All the main contributors are here, but the featurette is surprisingly empty. It comes across like more of a puff piece--you get generic horror moviemaking musings and not much else.
But there are still some fun moments, and the highlights come from Virginia Madsen. She cops to sneaking a peek at an anatomically correct prop ("A girl's gotta have fun!") and also offers this tidbit:
"Elias and I made a particularly bad film many years ago," she laughs, referring to 1995's The Prophecy. "It was not a fun set to be on. We tried to make it fun, but it was just kind of this miserable experience, and we didn't have a completed script. So it's like we got a second chance in a way. We got it wrong before--it was the wrong horror movie, now you can make a really good one."
Far more entertaining is the two-part The Fear is Real: Reinvestigating the Haunting (41:03), which talks with some of the principal players in the real-life case. Carmen Snedeker-Reed (Sara in the film) shares her story, along with two of her sons (she had four children in real life, not two), her nieces and various other people like neighbors. A few of the clairvoyants involved with the case also talk--and Carmen chastises one of them, saying the woman has been a fame whore ever since (a point given short shrift here; draw your own conclusions).
The most captivating footage comes via old news reports, newspaper clippings and photographs. We learn which parts of the film really happened, and the family talks about how going public with the case affected the children. It's also interesting to hear from the police--not only about the reports from the incident, but about the current popularity of the house for tourists. A brief segment mentions a 1992 book (In a Dark Place) that refuted much of the family's story, but the intriguing counter-argument doesn't go anywhere (the author apparently refused to be interviewed).
But I cry foul on a shameless stunt at the end of Part 1; it had me rolling my eyes in disgust, and severely dampens the effect of the piece (also interesting to note: Carmen's career is now "spiritual advisor").
Anatomy of a Haunting (11:48) talks with parapsychologist Barry Taff and psychic Jack Rourke about otherworldly phenomena; the most interesting moments come when Taff talks about investigating the case that inspired the film The Entity. Memento Mori: The History of Postmortem Photography (10:26) has author Stanley B. Burns talking about the evolution of the practice and about society's changing views toward death. It's not as fluid as it could be, and it gets a little boring listening to one man talk for 10 minutes--but there's still a few interesting observations.
Six deleted scenes (8:30) are presented, with optional audio commentary by the director. Nothing too memorable here, although the first scene--a dialogue piece with Matt and Wendy--is more of what the film needed: it helps develop the characters a little bit.
Two audio commentaries are also provided: the first has director Cornwell joined by producer Andrew Trapani, co-writer Adam Simon and editor Tom Elkins. This one has more of a technical filmmaker perspective, and is worth a listen if you love the film. The guys have a nice rapport, but I wasn't really drawn into it (they clearly have a higher opinion of the film than I do, and say they weren't intentionally influenced by other genre films).
The second commentary brings Cornwell back with actors Virginia Madsen (apparently recording in Bela Lugosi's house) and Kyle Gallner (chiming in via phone from Chicago, where he's filming the new Nightmare on Elm Street). This one is a far more entertaining listen--while it's not very structured, Madsen and Gallner have a hoot talking about the shoot, making jokes and sharing random facts and stories: "And I caught it!" shouts Gallner when Matt pukes into his hand. "Who puts their hand in front of their own vomit? Cause that's a natural reaction...I'm putting that on my resume, that I can make myself throw up."
Gallner also talks about his habit of falling asleep on set, his emaciated frame, his pajama wardrobe, shares a number of "fun facts" and also references his real-life heart surgeries, making it all the more potent when he talks about the difficulty of filming the cancer treatment scenes. (Also pay attention around the 53:40 mark, where the actor points out a line that now makes him laugh...nothing like a little molestation humor to lighten the mood, huh?)
Madsen, meanwhile, frequently talks about her yoga body, compliments Gallner ("I am your stalker, Kyle!"), does a few funny impressions, frequently gets scared and has a few fun stories up her sleeve: "Do you guys know that we were a joke on Saturday Night Live?" she says, referencing Kristin Wiig's Aunt Linda character on Weekend Update. "She was bitching about how Haunting in Connecticut wasn't scary, because what's scary about Connecticut?"
Madson notes she would love to do a sequel, but the next project--2010's The Haunting in Georgia, also inspired by Discovery Channel--will have a complete new cast and story. The film's theatrical trailer and trailers for other films round out the first disc; a digital copy of the film is included on Disc 2.
I'm an extra tough critic when it comes to supernatural horror, and The Haunting in Connecticut doesn't come close to passing my test; this is lightweight horror for the very easily scared. The characters here aren't as "real" as the movie thinks--the filmmakers are more interested in pasting together cheap, loud jolts rather than developing anything grounded in reality. The film never breathes, opting for shock instead of subtlety; it's in too much of a hurry, never allowing us to get comfortable with the characters and setting. Haunting is high quality from a technical standpoint, and a decent set of extras helps justify a Rent It recommendation, but only for diehard haunted house fans.