My problems with The Haunting in Connecticut began with the title. With the first word of the title, actually. The haunting in Connecticut? There's something unduly proprietary, even presumptuous, about that definite article. I mean, there must've been hundreds, thousands, of reports of paranormal activity in the Constitution State over the years. I grew up there, and think I may have seen an odd thing or two myself. Do the film’s producers really want to argue, even implicitly, that none of those hauntings were real? Because I honestly don’t think it’s wise of them to enter this particular filmmaker-viewer relationship on a note of such skepticism.
Would that the trouble ended there. The very first scene is part of a loose frame, with heroine Sara Campbell (Virginia Madsen) describing to an unseen audience the terrifying events that befell her family when they decided to rent that large, creepy, mysteriously underpriced house in no-one-bothers-to-say-where, Connecticut (actually Manitoba, which may account for the imprecision). In a spot-on anticipation of how moviegoers are likely to feel when they’ve seen what she’s seen, Sara explains, “We didn’t ask for this. And we didn’t deserve it.” Don’t say she didn’t warn you.
The rationale for renting the house is that Sara’s teenage son, Matt (Kyle Gallner), has cancer and is undergoing an experimental treatment at a nearby hospital. The commute back to wherever the Campbells live (here, the imprecision extends to state as well as town) is a long one, so the family--which also includes dad Peter (Martin Donovan), niece/babysitter Wendy (Amanda Crew), and two ghostbait moppets (Ty Wood, Sophi Knight)--moves temporarily into this dilapidated, though conveniently located, former mortuary. Not that they initially know that the house was once a mortuary. When Sara asks the realtor “what’s the catch” with this too-good-to-be-true rental, and he replies that “it does have a bit of a history,” she declines to inquire what that history might be--which seems like a bad idea just from a possible plumbing-or-termite-trouble standpoint, let alone a murdered-spirits-that-may-come-for-my-children one.
Without bogging down in the details, which are equal parts dull and confused, what follows is a parade of haunted-house tropes that were shopworn before most of the cast were born: visionary nightmares, mysterious locked rooms, bloody apparitions that lurk in mirrors and loom over shoulders, lights that flicker and doors that bang and plates that shatter--and every few minutes a boo! gotcha! so ham-fisted that soon the packed theater in which I saw the movie was giggling on cue. The Campbells, however, soldier on valiantly, demonstrating that white people haven’t learned much in the quarter-century since Eddie Murphy’s classic disquisition on The Amityville Horror.
The Haunting in Connecticut does contain a few genuinely creepy ideas and images. And unlike the rest of the cast, which sinks to the level of the material, Elias Koteas delivers a nice, understated performance as the (yes, I know) humble priest who stops by to do a spectral spring cleaning. But director Peter Cornwell evidently lacks faith in his ability to knit such elements into a tapestry of bona fide dread, and instead reaches again and again--boo!--into his tired bag of gory ghouls and amateur startles. There’s even a whiff of desperation to Cornwell’s decision to have the television at Matt’s hospital playing the director’s only previous cinematic offering, the far more satisfying claymation horror-comedy short “Ward 13.” Did he worry that after this feature-film debut, he wouldn’t get another bite at the apple?
A comprehensive rundown of the movie’s idiocies would be almost as taxing as the movie itself: the overdetermined and underdramatized bout of alcohol abuse that leads dear old dad to unscrew all the lightbulbs in the house; the urgent telephone warning that the pretty girl can’t answer because she’s taking an ill-advised shower; the self-serious religiosity of the conclusion, which would be tacky in a film three times as good; and on and on. I will, however, note that it’s even richer than usual to bill this howler as a “true story,” given that the author of the original 1992 book has publicly declared that he didn’t believe the real-life family and considered their “psychic” enablers to be malicious frauds, but was told that he was nonetheless contractually obligated to “just make the story up using whatever details I could.” Now, that’s a horror story.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.