Sunday, August 02, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)

By my own personal critical barometer, the haunted house sub-genre can prove a bit problematic if not treated with respect and extreme care. For one thing, it requires a particularly high threshold of believability in order to prove successful.

I'm not talking about believability in terms of the ghosts (they just require a healthy imagination...), No, I'm talking about believability in terms of the motivations of the human characters who dwell in the house with the ghosts.

I mean, in these movies you're always yelling at the imperiled residents of the haunted house in question to get out NOW...and they just never, ever do.

Instead, they remain in grievous physical and spiritual danger beyond all logic, beyond all reason, beyond all sanity.

After a while, you just want to wash your hands of these homeowners. They're the horror movie equivalent of people who stand out in the rain without an umbrella and then act surprised when they get wet.

Gateway to Hell discovered in the basement (painted in Boschean red...)?

It doesn't matter. The residents stay.

A placard reading "abandon all hope, ye who enter here" hanging in your entrance way?

How quaint. Now let's unpack the good china...

Okay. This is not always the case, especially in the hands of master filmmakers. There have been many great haunted house movies over the years, from Robert Wise's masterpiece, The Haunting (1963) to the creepy Burnt Offerings (1976) to the unnerving The Changeling (1980). The Freelings clearly couldn't leave their spirit-infested tract home in Poltergeist (1982) because their daughter, Carol Anne, had been spirited to the Beyond and they had to rescue her. Nor could the Torrence family flee their haunted hotel in Kubrick's The Shining (1980), because it was buried by a blizzard, and all the roads were closed by snow.


Heck, I even accept that Barbara Hershey's character, the lead in The Entity (1983), would have stuck around her particularly upsetting haunted house, since her ghost/tormentor was just another in a long line of "male" abusers and users in her life, and she had grown accustomed to victim hood.

Indeed, there are myriad ways in which a clever writer could keep a haunted house family in danger without it seeming like a dramatic cheat or a blatant defiance of rationality. To its credit, the 2009 horror movie, The Haunting in Connecticut gives it the old college try by including a protagonist -- a teenager named Matthew Campbell (Kyle Gallner) -- who suffers from cancer as he moves into a haunted funeral home with his family.

Matt is also undergoing an experimental, dangerous radiation treatment...which could be causing him to experience hallucinations (like crabs teeming over his body...). Thus, it is all too easy for Matthew's concerned family to mistake Matthew's protestations of a haunting/ghosts at home for the deleterious side-effects of his dangerous medical regimen. Hence, the family doesn't leave.


You know, I totally buy that. But unfortunately, the movie isn't as clear on the other characters' motivations in coping with Matthew and his vulnerable condition. For instance, the matriarch of the imperiled family, Mrs. Campbell (played by Virginia Madsen), allows the weakened Matthew to move into a basement suite that once housed the funeral home's grisly embalming room.

All the embalmer's tools (bone saws, scalpels, eyelid clippers...) and chemicals (acid, etc.) are still in there...readily available and in easy reach of children and teenagers alike. They're but one impulsive grab away, especially if your boy is living (and sleeping) in the adjoining room. Is that something you would permit if you were caring for a possibly suicidal, possibly delusional teenager? Mrs. Campbell seems to be legitimately caring and concerned (and she complains to God about losing her son...) so why should she tempt fate by moving him next to scalpels and bone saws and formaldehyde?

Then, at the end of the film, a baffling interlude occurs. After Matthew's entire body is instantaneously covered by mysterious scalpel wounds, Mrs.Campbell shrieks at him: "What have you done to yourself?"

A couple of things about that exhortation. One: if Mom didn't want Matthew playing with sharp medical instruments, perhaps she should have insisted --- just once -- that he not move into the chamber adjoining the fully-equipped embalming room. At the very least, Mrs. Campbell could have put a new lock on the door to keep the dangerous tools and chemicals out of the reach of her kids.

Secondly, at this point in the film, Mrs. Campbell has seen evidence of malevolent spirits herself, so why would she blame poor Matthew for self-mutilation now, when the wounds are clearly spirit-induced? At this late point in the film, the delusion angle is no longer operative, since everyone in the house has witnessed slamming doors, arcing lights, ghostly howling, and evil shadows. At the very least, Mrs. Campbell must have doubt; doubt that things are as simple as her exclamation suggests.

What I'm getting at here is that the movie never truly decides if Mrs. Campbell believes in the ghosts, or just believes Matthew is hallucinating, and so she's sort of distancing as a vehicle for our sympathy. It looks to me as though the film was tinkered with at some relatively late stage of development to make Madsen's character more central to the action, more sympathetic, but it's at the expense of story clarity.

Truth is, I didn't dislike The Haunting in Connecticut nearly as much as many of my peers did, nor as much as my wife did. This could be because I've been taking prescription medicine all weekend to beat back an insidious bout of the flu.

But for whatever reason, I opened myself up to the movie's jittery, screechy brand of ghostly trickery, and didn't dislike The Haunting in Connecticut nearly as much as I had Friday the 13th (2009) or My Bloody Valentine (2009). In particular, I enjoyed the conceit that those people already on the edge of the death -- the so-called borderland" -- could have a greater propensity to see ghosts than the healthy. I also found the performances pretty affecting, as the Campbells had to reckon with the impending certain death of Matthew. Martin Donovan does a good job as the confused, alcoholic patriarch of the family. It's clear that he's just holding on, and there are some touching scenes in The Haunting in Connecticut that other movies wouldn't take the time to feature. Mr. Campbell has a grieving, destructive, temper tantrum in one. Another scene depicts him watching old slides of Matthew as a child and fighting back tears.

Many of the ghost sequences are effective too. One scene involving a little boy playing hide-and-seek in a dumbwaiter is downright chill-inducing, and I appreciate the manner in which another creepy shot is composed: a ghost "hand" looms plainly into view next to a little girl playing with a dollhouse, almost part of the scenery, at first unnoticed. A crossing of the borderlands. Another sequence literally has the shadow of death hovering over Matthew as he slumbers, and that's the ultimate point of the film. Matthew is susceptible to the "Evil" here because Matthew is going to die.

Ultimately, I can't recommend the film, however. The Haunting in Connecticut fails dramatically in a few important regards. First, it seems to be cribbing from the Poltergeist handbook: down to the false cleansing of the house, and then the discovery of angry corpses on the premises. Based on a true story? How about based on a previous screenplay?

And secondly, the film just never decides how Mrs. Campbell feels about the haunting. If she believes in the ghosts -- which the film's closing lines suggest -- then she is a blatantly irresponsible person since she leaves her youngest children alone in the dangerous locale on more than one occasion. If she doesn't believe in the ghosts, as evidenced by her line "what have you done to yourself?, then what, exactly does she believe happened?

Finally, for most of its running time, The Haunting in Connecticut deals more honestly with the idea of mortality than just about any American horror film of 2009 vintage. Matthew is sick. We see radiation burns on his chest after his treatments. Sometimes he can barely stand, and he's sensitive to the touch. His mother can't even hug him. Death is a fact of life for Matthew -- as it is for us, in real life. Whenever the family discusses the future, the elephant in the room is Matthew. He won't be around. The future is meaningless to him.

All that's great, and for the most part, very deftly handled by The Haunting in Connecticut. So for the movie to end on the unnecessarily miraculous, shmaltzy note it does is simply a giant, dishonest, cheat.

What is this Touched by An Angel?

Even doped-up on medication, I know a cop-out when I see one.

6 comments:

  1. Good movie review, JKM. And what dedication you have. Watching and reviewing a horror movie (any horror movie) while sick with the flu. A long time ago, I was home from school with the flu, and started reading Stephen King's The Stand. It's the only great book I ever stopped reading because of flu content.

    Feel better. Thanks.

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  2. Hey le0pard13,

    Thanks for the well-wishes, my friend. I'm still in the thick of this flu but hopefully mending. My two-and-a-half year old has it too, so it's been a rough weekend in these parts!

    best,
    JKM

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  3. This is an excellent review and you echo many of my feelings about this film as well. It was "okay" but by no means anything special. And I will admit to be distracted throughout as I marveled at how well Virginia Madsen has aged. Man, she looks great!

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  4. I almost rented this movie last night, but actually got Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Yeah, that's right. And I adored it. I would like to see this movie, but I think I may feel just the same way you do John. But one day...

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  5. Hi, interesting blog, thanks for sharing this. i had watch this movie online, also Download The Haunting in Connecticut

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  6. I've had trouble with 'Haunted House' films every since Eddie Murphy's monologue on "why they just don't tip the fuck out of the house". I have been a fan of Virginia Madsen's every since 'Candyman' & 'Prophecy', though she's not a scream queen by any sense of the imagination.

    Films like 'Paranormal Activity' & 'Insidious' get around this problem in logic that JKW mentioned by haunting the individual and not the residence.

    In 'The Haunting', they sought out the ghosts. How many snowstorms and girls sucked into the beyond can there be in films? In the 'Amityville Horror' the Lutz's were financially stuck in the residence.

    As usual, the best part of the film is introducing the characters to the presence, the last half is forgettable.

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