The Haunting in Connecticut introduces an intriguing premise – an advanced cancer patient is stricken with torturous, other worldly visions – and promptly demolishes it. Director Peter Cornwell, working from a screenplay by Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe, transforms what might have been a complex study of the psychological ramifications of serious illness into a subpar haunted house ghost story. The film comes complete with all the stock sights and images of such a venture. So many shadowy creatures flit in and out of mirrors, doorways and tight hidden spaces that it’s possible to predict their appearances down to the second.
Virginia Madsen plays Sara Campbell, concerned mom to Matt (Kyle Gallner). The Campbells have come to rural Connecticut so that Matt can participate in a last ditch experimental treatment program, as Sara no longer wants to drive him back and forth from their home elsewhere on the east coast. Even though she decides to move the family into a house described ominously as “having a history,” with an entire room in the basement locked shut, it’s hard to blame her. If my son were as much of a whiny mope as Matt I’d do anything to avoid long car trips too.
Soon enough old pictures of dead people are unearthed. Then the shadowy apparitions start appearing to Matt, he imagines blood and maggots where there are none and grainy jump cut heavy montages to hollow-eyed creeps in early 20th century garb conducting a séance and cowering in terror signify nothing. The entire movie unfolds in a cyclical vacuum: lights flicker and shut off, noises start happening, unexplained visitors pop up and the already wholly unlikable Matt becomes even more of a detestable teenage curmudgeon. Cancer is obviously serious business, as are terrifying ghostly visions, but it wouldn’t have killed the guy to lighten up a bit.
It’s pretty clear from the get go exactly where this is heading. As an audience member you’re left to do little but sit around and wait for the big reveal of the story of the house’s dark past before the stock priestly figure, in this case Reverend Popescu (Elias Koteas), conducts some form of an exorcism. To get there our hero must do microfilm research, preferably with an intrigued and totally superfluous pretty girl, here played by Amanda Crew, while the adults remain completely clueless.
The powers that be in Hollywood long ago decided haunted house movies must all clone The Amityville Horror, repeatedly resuscitating a formula with a sell-by date long since expired. The Others and the assorted rare films to transcend those restrictions and stand apart from the pack have done so because their makers understand how to bring atmospheric texture to a picture, to make the home on display a resonant, self-contained world. Cornwell knows how to wind his camera up creaky staircases and into dusty rooms, and he’s certainly studied the age-old boo moment.
What he hasn’t done, however, is digest the primary storytelling requirement in successful horror filmmaking. This movie needs the crucial sense of the house’s demons being manifested in the life of the Campbell family, the feeling that those demons have truly, irreparably begun to do them harm. The steadfast allegiance to clichés keeps the well-being of the family safely distanced from the events at hand, as if they were watching a possessed house going off rather than truly living the horror. Even Matt seems at best superficially affected by the psychic chaos. It’s depressing to be tormented by nightmarish imagery, and, as previously noted, Gallner is quite proficient at moping. He is not, however, a strong enough actor to lend the appropriate gravitas to a character waging war over his soul, but looking and acting like he needs a nice long nap.
The audience is left in a similar state of detachment, left outside looking in on the Campbell family ordeal. The demonic presence inside their home is so clearly the stuff of FX artists and sound designers that it resonates in the way a demo reel might: at times it’s vaguely unsettling but without the slightest tangible, lasting effect. This isn’t horror that worms its way under your skin and into your conscience, in the way the best, most thought provoking work can. It sits there onscreen and is over, gone and forgotten as the credits roll.