'Real-life' haunting, at times grave and lifeless, dead ahead

March 27, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

The Haunting in Connecticut is part of the dreary tradition of "real-life" haunted-house movies, such as The Amityville Horror, instead of the livelier one of make-believe, such as The Innocents or The Haunting or the more recent The Orphanage. Why are the supposedly fact-based "boo movies" so much more plodding and heavy?

Instead of milking ambiguity for suspense and terror, these movies proceed with (pardon the expression) dead certainty. If something looks like a ghost and moves like a ghost and smells like a ghost - it is, invariably, a ghost.

Based on a case that was the subject of a 2002 Discovery Channel movie, The Haunting in Connecticut takes place in 1987, when the Campbell family moves into a house that had been a mortuary. In an interview that frames the movie, mother Sara (Virginia Madsen) explains that the house was something "she desperately needed" so she and her cancer-ridden son, Matt (Kyle Gallner), could live close to the hospital where he received intense experimental care.

Matt begins hallucinating their first night in. That could be a side effect of his cancer treatment, but not the way director Peter Cornwell and writers Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe set up the story. They show us spooky sepia-toned photos of the dead right at the beginning, as well as rivulets of blood and/or embalming fluid and images of a seance in which a bolt of ectoplasm shot from somebody's mouth. You figure out where all these images fit in the scheme of things long before the filmmakers spell out a vicious saga of necromancy and the abuse of a teenage innocent who served as the home's resident medium.

The spooks and specters aren't all that rattle the Campbell family. Sara's contractor husband, Peter (Martin Donovan), is a recovering alcoholic, and he's going broke paying for Matt's medication. But these details add only to the cruelty of the story, not mystery. That's another sad characteristic of this kind of "faction." Under the cloak of "truth," the storytellers feel they can go as far as they want with psychological sadism and with physical torture, too.

The film comes up with an unexpected twist or two in the final conflict between boys and girls and ghouls, and there's a welcome moment of invention when the lights coming on are scarier than lights turning off. But you have to be willing to take a lot of punishment for a few good scares.

Elias Koteas' low-key intensity classes up the obligatory role of the haunted pastor, and Gallner as Matt and Amanda Crew as his cousin Wendy conjure an easy adolescent rapport.

The cast is never less than competent. Still, you wonder why Madsen is making movies as meretricious as this one. She doesn't walk through the film; she graces it with a maternal gravity. But just five years after her Oscar-nominated performance in Sideways, I wanted more from her than staging a pop "Pieta" in a charnel house.

The Haunting in Connecticut ** (2 STARS)

(Lionsgate) Starring Virginia Madsen, Kyle Gallner, Elias Koteas. Directed by Peter Cornwell. Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of terror and disturbing images. Time 92 minutes.

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