by Mel Valentin
Whenever the words “based on a true story” appear before the opening credits of a film, the producers of the film make an explicit pact with the audience. More often than not, however, the phrase’s vague wording gives the producers an out to dissemble, to prevaricate, to lie all the while claiming their advancing the cause of some “truth,” even if, ultimately, the best they can argue for is emotional truth. "The Haunting in Connecticut" arrives in multiplexes this weekend promising to scare moviegoers with a mix of “based on a true story” verisimilitude and supernatural terrors. For the paranormally inclined, "The Haunting in Connecticut" will probably reaffirm self-evident truths. For the more dubiously inclined (hopefully most moviegoers), "The Haunting in Connecticut" provides a few well-orchestrated, if predictable chills, two or three watchable performances, and not much else.Sara Campbell (Virginia Madsen) and her husband, Peter (Martin Donovan), are facing a parent’s worse nightmare: their teenage son, Matt (Kyle Gallner), has been stricken with cancer. With Matt losing his battle with cancer, Sara and Peter agree to let Matt participate in an experimental trial. Compounded by the side effects of the treatment, Matt’s physical frailty makes it impossible for him to travel lengthy distances. Sara and Peter decide to temporarily relocate their family closer to Matt’s hospital. With the family’s finances strained, Sara settles on an affordable two-story house. Cheap rent comes with a price, of course: the house was once a funeral home. Religious but not superstitious, Sara shrugs off any concerns, but also neglects to inform Peter of the house’s disturbing history.
"Haunted house horror purportedly "based on a true story."
Sara’s two other children, Mary (Sophi Knight) and Billy (Ty Wood), and her sister, Wendy (Amanda Crew), join her at the new house. Due to the lengthy commute, Peter can only visit his family on weekends, leaving Sara as the de facto head of the family. While Mary and Peter pick rooms on the top floor of the house, Matt decides to convert the basement into his bedroom, ostensibly so his family won’t hear him getting sick. Matt, of course, soon discovers the house’s secret behind a locked door in the basement, the mortician’s workspace, complete with metal slab and embalming equipment. Almost immediately, Matt begins to suffer from vivid hallucinations of the mortician, Ramsey Aickman (John Bluethner), his assistant, Jonah (Erik J. Berg), a séance, and eyelid-less ghosts, but afraid of being released from the experimental trial, he refuses to tell Sara or his doctor about the hallucinations. At the hospital, Matt meets Nicolai Popescu (Elias Koteas), another chemotherapy patient and priest, who offers Matt spiritual guidance in combating the real (and imagined) demons waiting for him back at the former mortuary.
The screenwriters, Adam Simon (Bones, Carnosaur, Brain Dead) and Tim Metcalfe (44 Minutes, Kalifornia, Fright Night 2), certainly know the conventions of the haunted house sub-genre (e.g., a family under financial and emotional strain, physical or mental illness, restless ghosts, a long-buried secret that needs to be unearthed, a family slow to recognize the threat, etc.). Unfortunately, they settled for changing names, dates, and a few minor details from other films in the sub-genre, specifically The Amityville Horror, with elements drawn from The Exorcist and The Ring. Given the heavy criticisms of the case Simon an Metcalfe purportedly used as the basis The Haunting in Connecticut, there was little reason why they couldn’t have varied some elements, eliminated others, or otherwise add in surprises to the overly conventional result they gave moviegoers.Where "The Haunting in Connecticut" succeeds, if only fitfully, is in the grungy, 70s-inpsired production design, which subtly emphasizes the decay and rot of the former mortuary, the shadow-heavy cinematography, and, at least initially, the slow build by director Peter Cornwell toward the inevitable revelation of the house’s (all-too-predictable) secrets. "The Haunting in Connecticut" also benefits from a cast better than the dialogue lines or character turns offered by Simon and Metcalfe’s screenplay. Virginia Madsen, an underrated, underused actress, and relative newcomer Kyle Gallner give refreshingly histrionic-free performances. Hopefully, they’ll both find better material to act in next time.
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originally posted: 03/28/09 00:00:00