starring Virginia Madsen, Kyle Gallner, Martin Donovan, Elias Koteas
screenplay by Adam Simon & Tim Metcalfe
directed by Peter Cornwell
by Ian Pugh SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Never mind all of this "true story" malarkey--what really makes The Haunting in Connecticut stand out from the pack is the sociopathic obnoxiousness with which it's been marketed to moviegoers. The dark and depressing trailers are bad enough, but who can forget the giant ad that invaded YouTube's front page last week that showed a young boy ejecting a gravity-defying stream of vomit before inviting the user to "click to watch two dead boys"? Though "dead boys" is actually a reference to the famous folk poem (as in "back to back they faced each other"), it's still not exactly the smartest way to promote your wares outside the hopefully-miniscule sadist demographic--especially when the final product ends up being cookie-cutter ADD bullshit like The Haunting in Connecticut.
Seeking digs for her family in Connecticut while her son Matt (Kyle Gallner) undergoes special cancer treatment, Sara (Virginia Madsen) rents a funeral parlour with a disturbing past involving séances and desiccated corpses conspicuously lacking their eyelids. And wouldn't you know it, the darn place is just lousy with ghosts, which typically register to our eyes as a series of flash cuts accompanied by brain-rattling shrieks on the soundtrack. It's a device not necessarily without potential (after all, one of Halloween's most indelible sequences coupled the unexpected appearance of the killer with a blast from the synthesizer), yet here it takes the place of any sustained effort to generate atmosphere. Shocks are valued above scares and wilful incoherence is prided over legitimate confusion--and when repeated over and over and over again, the effect eventually becomes tantamount to getting stabbed in the eye with a violin. So abused is the stinger, in fact, that the film borders on self-parody as children whoosh past the camera several times in quick succession during a harmless game of hide-and-seek. Intentionally satirical? Probably not, but you tend to treasure these opportunities to speculate because they distract you from suffering a fatal seizure.
The question of whether these epileptic hallucinations are merely a product of Matt's mind, losing touch with reality in its final descent, is one that's entertained for a good five minutes. Regardless, you maintain the vague hope that from Sara's strong, loving attachment to her son will blossom a treatise on coping with mortality, fragility--anything that would begin to justify this premise. Alas, nothing is learned, because the film ultimately treats this whole haunted house gig as some ill-defined gauntlet courtesy of the Man Upstairs. You've seen it all before: make it a drama and call it Slumdog Millionaire; make it a sci-fi flick and call it Knowing. Does it come as a surprise that The Haunting in Connecticut and Knowing both feature haunted children, guided by a paranormal hand, scratching at the walls with bloody fingernails in search of answers to the Big Questions? The real frustration with these films is that they present the struggle with fundamental unknowables reasonably well only to resort to facile payoffs.
An ironic reminder of the original The Wicker Man's final moments notwithstanding, Sara's crowning recitation of Psalm 23--surrounded by flames and apparitions--exemplifies the problem: the demons are exorcised and, thanks to a procession of Christ-like protectors, Matt is rescued from death's door and fully cured. I'm not slamming the notion of faith (indeed, playing a cancer-afflicted priest, Elias Koteas gives the whole thing more credibility than it deserves), or even the idea that the road to Heaven requires a detour through Hell. What I do find objectionable is this depiction of the healing power of faith to the exclusion of emotional growth. The spiritual component of Sara's response to Matt's impending death (she orchestrates de facto arguments with God and constantly tells herself that everything's going to be OK) is assigned far more psychic weight than the fact that her husband (Martin Donovan) drowns his grief in alcohol; and the ultimate message in The Haunting in Connecticut seems to be that if you lose a child to cancer, it's because you weren't praying hard enough. As far as sociopathic obnoxiousness goes, not even "click to see two dead boys" beats that offensive little gem. Originally published: March 27, 2009.