I really wish I liked this film more.
The basic approach is one I like. It’s a ghost story, but grounded in a character drama first. And considering how wretched the writing is in much of the genre, it’s always nice to see someone put the emphasis on character first. But as much as I like that approach in theory, in practice, “The Haunting In Connecticut” comes up short, and the result is a movie that spends most of its brief running time stuck in neutral before lurching to a sort of muted finale. This is PG-13 horror at its tamest, and I suspect the only people who will be scared by anything in it are young horror fans who haven’t seen many haunted house films before. And while I am happy that there is a young audience just learning about horror, I am frustrated that they are the most-served percentage of the audience, while those of us who have been fans of the genre for decades are left to sift through remakes and retreads and sequels no one asked for, hoping for an occasional gem.
This was screened as part of the Fantastic Fest At Midnight series at SXSW while I was there, and I had high hopes for it based on the earlier work of director Peter Cornwell. If you haven’t seen his movie “Ward 13,” it’s an inventive and ambitious stop-motion animated film that plays with horror tropes in some new and intelligent ways. Almost none of the style that distinguished that short is on display here. This is anonymous studio horror, familiar at every turn, and it feels like it was built by committee, not by a filmmaker. Part of that is the script by Adam Simon & Tim Metcalfe, which commits the cardinal sin of any horror film: it’s dull. It’s not just a little dull… it’s consistently dull, and the characters continually make choices that are frustrating and motivated by nothing more than their presence in a horror film, one of my biggest pet peeves.
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Here’s a perfect example of what I mean: the Campbell family needs a place to live that’s close to the hospital where their son Matt (Kyle Gallner) is being treated for cancer. The constant drives back and forth are taking a toll on him after the chemotherapy, and he’s not getting the chance he needs to heal. His mother Sara (Virginia Madsen) finds a house for rent that’s perfect, but she learns something about the house that she chooses not to tell the family. Considering the information is that the house used to be a funeral home, that might be the sort of thing you would share in real life. And when your sick son decides to sleep in the basement next to doors that won’t open, you don’t think maybe a concerned parent chooses that moment to tell him, “Yeah, that’s the work area where they prepared the hundreds and hundreds of dead bodies that passed through here”? Because I don’t buy that for a moment. I wouldn’t put my bed next to mysterious doors that don’t open, especially if I could glimpse shrouded shapes on the other side. It’s just not the way people behave unless they’re in a film and they have to act that way to justify the plot. The best horror comes when you see smart characters make smart choices and still suffer some horrible torment anyway. When I see characters making choices as stupid as this, I can’t get invested in what happens to them because I don’t care anymore.
I also really dislike the whole “based on a true story” trope at this point. No one is going to believe that this movie happened the way it’s shown here, and after the real-life Sara showed up to speak at the SXSW screening, I believe even less. She came across as someone who was either completely detached from reality or cynical and calculating, with more ghost stories left to sell if this one does well. Madsen gives the role everything she has, and it’s hard to argue with her maternal ferocity here. But like the actor playing her husband, Martin Donovan, she seems to be playing better material than she really is. They’re investing these shallow, poorly-drawn characters with some real depth and weight, and that disconnect between what they’re saying and how they’re saying it is so profound that it makes me wonder if they even realize it. The same is true of Elias Koteas, who plays a priest who befriends Matt during chemotherapy, only to become the family’s personal exorcist when things go wildly wrong. The character he’s playing is a weak cliche, the conveniently expository character who just happens to understand everything that’s going on, no matter how unusual. It’s an impossible role to play as anything more than a type, and Koteas struggles admirably with it before finally giving in and becoming a device instead of a character.
The backstory to the haunted house is creepier than anything in the rest of the film, and I think they might have actually had a shot at doing something special if they’d focused on telling that backstory as a film. Early 20th Century occultism, with the seances and the ectoplasm, is a freaky backdrop that could easily have been fertile material for the filmmakers. Instead, it’s relegated to being the explanation of the far-less-interesting events we watch here, like when Romero’s “Diary Of The Dead” focuses on a bunch of loathsome scumbag lead characters who spend the whole movie driving past other, better films.
Gallner’s fine in the lead, and he’s a young actor who has been slowly but surely building his resume on shows like “Veronica Mars” and “Smallville,” and in films like “Gardens Of The Night.” This is his biggest role to date, and he’s good. He plays the cancer patient without turning him into a cancer victim, and he has good chemistry with Madsen as his mom as well as Amanda Crew, who also made a strong impression in last year’s “Sex Drive.”
In short, overly familiar scares and not nearly enough of them keep this from working as a horror film, and poor writing cripples the film as serious drama, leaving it stranded as neither fish nor fowl. I’m sure Lionsgate will open it successfully this weekend, but I would imagine it will satisfy few viewers completely in its effort to appeal to everyone.
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