Saturday, August 08, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Raising Cain (1992)

Still reeling from the critical and box-office meltdown of The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1990, director Brian De Palma quietly slid back into what some critics deemed "familiar territory" for his 1992 follow-up film, Raising Cain.

Indeed, the artist who had so cunningly crafted transgressive psychological thrillers such Obsession (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981) and Body Double
(1984) appeared -- at least on the surface -- to be making a deliberate and calculated strategic retreat to safer celluloid ground.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Even the film's title reveals this axiom: Raising Cain literally concerns Brian de Palma "raising hell" with cinematic forms, conventions and types...to the confusion of some, and the derision of many.

Washington Post
critic Hal Hinson ultimately termed the film "a scary prank." Rolling Stone felt it was an amalgamation of all De Palma's worst and most stereotyped qualities, cataloguing the effort as "shallow, derivative, misogynous and heartless."

A close analysis of Raising Cain, however, reveals that the film is anything but shallow. Rather, it's an intricate narrative maze that routinely shifts or fractures our perspective (echoing the film's content; which concerns a man suffering from a multiple personality disorder).

Raising Cain
is also a highly-reflexive thriller that embodies the multiple "creative" voices competing inside De Palma's head (from Hitchcock to Godard to Bunuel to Powell). Perhaps even more impressively, the film brazenly illuminates the director's own existential crisis at this point in his career: the canard that he is slavishly re-creating the work of his artistic "fathers" instead of establishing his own unique identity.

Finally, Raising Cain deftly and subversively functions as a caustic social satire, a brutal comedy of manners (much like Dressed to Kill...) but this time the subject is definitively American masculinity, particularly the so-called "crisis in masculinity" that commenced in the late 1980s and continued unabated through the 1990s into the first Bush era.

"My Father Wrote the Book on Childhood Development"

Raising Cain is the story of mild-mannered Carter Nix (John Lithgow), a child psychologist who has given up his successful medical practice to raise his only child, Amy (Amanda Pombo).

While Carter is a "hands on," stay at home Dad, his sexy wife, Jenny O'Keefe (Lolita Davidovich) works full-time as a nurse and is the family bread winner. This makes her resentful, at least in secret, of Carter.

Although professionally successful, Carter dwells in the shadow of his famous father, a child psychiatrist who allegedly runs a clinic in Norway. But the truth is more complicated than that. Some people believe that the elder Dr. Nix actually died years earlier (in a suicide attempt, following a disgraceful attempted baby kidnapping).

Carter hides another secret too: he suffers from multiple-personality disorder, or what today is termed a "disassociative identity disorder." Carter is the "original" personality, and his "twin" Cain (also Lithgow) is the bad-acting, disreputable personality, one "raised" by Carter during times of crisis to take care of him. Or to do Carter's dirty work.

Carter's dirty work, it turns out, involves the neighborhood children. Carter has been abducting them from a local playground and delivering them to his white-haired father, who is conducting a new round of experiments at an out-of-the-way, seedy motel.

Unfortunately, the brutal Cain is aroused to consciousness when Carter learns that Jenny is having an affair with an old flame, Jack (Steven Bauer). Jenny survives a murder attempt by Cain, and learns that the psychopath has taken young Amy to the Elder Nix for experimentation, ostensibly in a "specially designed" child "environment."

Carter is imprisoned for kidnapping Amy, and an old colleague of Dr. Nix's, the frail Dr. Lyn Waldheim (Frances Sternhagen) arrives to shed some light on the Nix family history. She believes that Carter's father experimented on him as a youth and actually splintered Carter's psyche intentionally, in an attempt to create multiple personalities for his popular research...which resulted in a best-selling book and a TV-movie.

Waldheim seeks to learn Amy's location from the incarcerated Carter and during an interrogation she uncovers different hidden personalities. Among these are Josh (a seven year old boy who fears punishment...) and a powerful female, Margo, the protector of endangered "children" like Amy and Josh.

Before long, Jenny, Margo and Jack separately arrive at the out-of-the-way motel where the elder Dr. Nix holds the abducted children. But is Dr. Nix just another one of Carter's innumerable multiples, or is the old man still alive, and still conducting his nefarious experiments on the children? Jenny will soon learn the truth with her own eyes.

"You Are Married to the Perfect Man:" American Masculinity in Crisis

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the fantasy of the American man being a "hero" or "conqueror" -- or even the sole bread winner in a traditional nuclear family -- was being torn apart at the seams.

Terms like "Mr. Mom" entered the pop culture lexicon in the mid-eighties after a 1983 comedy starring Michael Keaton unexpectedly became a hit. The nickname was utilized, often derisively, to describe a man who stayed home to raise children while his wife went to work outside the home and functioned as "the hunter-gatherer."

Could a man still be "a man" in the 1990s if he didn't hold down a job? If he stayed home and raised the children? Would women find this 1990s breed of man attractive, absent the more rugged qualities that had made him The Dragon-slayer in generations past?

In her book Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era, author Susan Jefford argued that "the masculine way has almost run its course...the point at which no alternatives are left" (Rutgers University Press, 1994, page 176). Because of scandals (including Iran Contra and Astrology-Gate), American alpha males -- including President Reagan -- had been transformed from icons of laudable masculinity to mock-able figures of fun: imbecilic, daft, and confused. The new President, George Bush, was disregarded far and wide in the press as a "wimp."

Meanwhile, women had not only made significant in-roads in the workplace, but had also served with great distinction in the American military during the Gulf War (1991), further blurring traditional definitions of gender. Another dividing line for the nation also occurred in 1991, when Clarence Thomas, a nominee for the Supreme Court, faced a contentious confirmation hearing. He had allegedly made lewd remarks to a female co-worker, Anita Hill. But were his actions the very definition of sexual harassment, or was he enjoying dirty jokes, and flirting with a female colleague? I'm not going to take sides in that debate, but this was part and parcel of the crisis in masculinity. What could a man safely say in the 1990s, in the presence of a professional woman? Where was the new line of "appropriateness" to be drawn?

Others viewed the "crisis in masculinity" in a different fashion (and indeed, you can see this opinion reflected in 1999's Fight Club). In particular, author Brian Baker noted in Masculinity in Fiction and Film: Representing Men in Popular Genres, 1945-2000, that the failure of masculinity in modern America was a result of men not being too assertive, but of men not being assertive enough. The men of the 1980s and 1990s were simply "re-capitulating the mistakes" of their fathers, men of the post-war generation (Continuum Literary Studies, 2006, page 123). In other words, inadequate father figures and a new a culture promoting "sensitivity" had de-fanged a generation of men. The culture was becoming...feminized. Again, I'm not coming down on one side of this argument or the other, just noting that it was a topic of the times and as such, part of Raising Cain's context.

And indeed, this social concern plays out explicitly in the film. The kindly Carter is a touchy-feely milquetoast who lives in thrall to the real alpha male in his life: his father (a robust, arrogant man of the post-war generation). His dad is a world-renowned achiever; Carter just a "regular" psychologist. Carter is indeed a loving father, one who spends more than mere "quality time" with his daughter, Amy. And yet his wife, Jenny is not at all happy with him about his sensitivity and caring. One small, outward sign of this festering problem: Jenny doesn't even take Carter's family name...calling herself Jenny O'Keefe instead of Jenny Nix (forecasting, perhaps, the whole Hilary Rodham kerfuffle...)

At one point in the film, Jenny laments that Carter, the successful child psychologist, has given up his profitable practice for child-rearing...leaving her to work full time outside the home. The freedom she has secured for herself (to be either a career woman or a mother, at her discretion), is not one extended to Carter. Because he has forsaken the hunter-gatherer role, she no longer respects him. And because she no longer respects him, she also no longer sees Carter as sexually desirable.

Early in Raising Cain, Carter attempts to make love to Jenny, but stops suddenly when he hears Amy crying in her nearby bedroom. Jenny is angry with Carter over this act of coitus interruptus, and soon has an adulterous affair with Jack...a man who clearly has his "sexual" priorities straight. Despite the fact that Jenny is married (and the mother of a small child), Jack brazenly makes love to her in a park. In fact, Jack and Jenny first shared a kiss at the exact moment that Jack's sick wife passed away in a hospital room...just feet away from them (and within the dying woman's line of sight!) So Jack is a throwback, the kind of man who society tells us is not supposed to be cherished anymore...but clearly is cherished...by some women. In fact, Jack is seen as sexually powerful, whereas Carter is a wimpy cuckold.

Carter's many alternate personalities also expose further the crisis in masculinity. Cain is seen as inherently disreputable. He's a smoker for one thing (another big no-no in the Age of Political Correctness), and he's also, well, psychotic. Yet, Cain is the "man of action." Carter outsources his dirty work to Cain, because as a "sensitive" modern male he is deemed incapable of protecting himself or his family. When Carter gets into trouble attempting to subdue Karen, a local mother, Cain suggests that Carter kiss her to allay the suspicions of passers-by. This is something that would never occur to the diffident Carter on his own; but a solution which jumps out immediately to Cain. Cain is Id, through and through. The voice we all hear, but rarely act upon.

Yet another of Carter's personalities, Josh, has regressed to boyhood. He's a terrified child, one constantly fearing the wrath of his father. Again -- not entirely unlike Carter -- Josh is an image of masculinity reverted to a "harmless" or impotent stage, pre-adolescent, and therefore pre-sexual.

Finally, the guardian of the children is the personality named Margo. Importantly, Margo is female. Margo rescues Amy, destroys the Elder Dr. Nix, and restores order. It is a woman, therefore, who finally usurps the role of "hero"/"conqueror" in modern America. Carter can only become a hero when he is...female. The film's valedictory shot is of a looming, powerful Margo, standing heroically behind his family (Jenny and Amy). Carter could only be himself (a caring individual and care-giver) when in the personality and guise of a woman...and the last shot explains this visually. Margo is not menacing; not evil. She is triumphant.

Yep, that's a crisis in masculinity, all right.

Raising Cain is thus a satire, exposing the schizophrenic, contradictory messages sometimes sent by our culture to men of the day. They were expected to "cowboy up" and "be a man"...except when they were supposed to be "sensitive" and "express" their feelings. They were to support the family financially; except in those cases that a woman wanted to do so herself. They were supposed to be committed fathers; but never usurp the sacred role of the primary parent: the mother. In Raising Cain, Carter is crazy, splintered into a million pieces over the competing pressures conspiring against him. Ultimately, the only way he can self-actualize is by becoming, literally, a woman.

Throughout the film, Carter is almost constantly besieged by images of perfect women. After kidnapping a little boy, he drives to his idyllic, fairy tale house, and a gorgeous woman pushing an ivory white baby carriage is seen walking across the sidewalk. She is society's image of a perfect parent...something Carter can never be; at least not until he becomes Margo.

Later, Jenny appears briefly inside a heart-shaped icon on a TV set at a local shop celebrating Valentine's Day. This image reminds us that Carter -- the milquetoast -- can never capture his wife's "heart." Indeed, in that very scene, Jack returns to stake his claim on it. Jenny's friend, played by Mel Harris, states that Carter is the "perfect man," but Jenny is already thinking of ways to get out of the marriage to be with Jack, the man who really makes her heart go aflutter (even if he doesn't take care of children). So Carter's final transformation into Margo is a sort of twisted joke on the old proverb "if you can't beat 'em, join em."

"I Am What You Made Me, Dad:" De Palma's Multiple Fathers

In some very important sense, Brian De Palma suffers the same existential crisis as Carter Nix in Raising Cain.

Both men toil under the expansive shadows of their famous "fathers," either biological or spiritual. De Palma is always being called "The New Hitchcock" or "The American Godard," but these labels always contextualize him in terms of other filmmakers; of spiritual cinematic patriarchs. Rarely is he seen as the pioneer, the trail-blazer. Only the second-comer.

In Raising Cain, De Palma once more acknowledges his debts to such cinematic "fathers" with several deliberate homages. Think of this, essentially, as Carter going to work in the same profession as his dad.

Foremost among these homages, De Palma pays tribute to director Michael Powell and his film, Peeping Tom (1960). That movie involved an adult man, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) who was actually a murderer. His violence stemmed from the fact that Mark's father experimented on him as a boy, testing his responses to fear, horror, and death. His Dad then recorded those responses on camera, fostering a strange pathology in Mark, one involving cameras. Importantly, Mark's father was also a psychologist, very much like Dr. Nix.

In Raising Cain, young Carter is also experimented upon, essentially made into a multiple personality case. Like Mark, all of Carter's responses are charted, dissected and recorded. And also like Mark, Carter enters "the family business" after a fashion, even installing cameras in his daughter's bedroom, to gauge her responses. This may be De Palma's expression of the insidious nature of child abuse: a cycle of violence that passes from generation to generation. But regardless of the thematic similarities, it's clear that Carter of Raising Cain and Mark of Peeping Tom are both "weak" sons abused by "bad fathers." Both are carrying on in the family biz; both are mad as hatters.

Almost universally, De Palma develops his homages a step beyond the source material rather than merely imitating them, and that is also true in Raising Cain. Mark ultimately kills himself in Peeping Tom, but Carter -- in Raising Cain's final moments -- doesn't die. His blood is never spilled to satisfy society. Instead, Carter is (willfully) sublimated inside the matriarchal protector, Margo. It's a place where he can finally feel safe; behind the protector and "Big Sister." Carter may no longer be the primary personality, but he is not wiped out either. Instead, his journey may even be one of self-actualization. In Margo's body, he can be the loving, protecting mother that we must presume that Carter never had.

Another spiritual father to De Palma is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock; and again we see him paying homage here. Once more, Psycho appears to be the well-spring for De Palma's creativity since we get a variation on Norman's disposal of bodies (in a swamp), and also the re-appearance of a man dressed as a woman (also deployed in De Palma's Dressed to Kill). Again, it's important to stress that this is not just mindless or rote repetition of familiar Psycho sequences. Instead, De Palma takes the material and twists and turns it to new purpose. For instance, after apparently dying in the Half Moon Swamp, Jenny surprisingly re-emerges to challenge Cain...something which never occurred to Marion. And far from being a villain (like Mother Bates), Margo -- the man as woman -- is Raising Cain's undeniable hero. She single-handedly rescues the children from the evil Dr. Nix.

What's more interesting, perhaps, than the homages to the "fathers" (Hitchcock, Powell, perhaps even Bunuel...), is the clear self-reflexive aspect of Raising Cain. Here -- after a dramatic career failure, -- De Palma is seen as taking up his life's work, which -- not coincidentally - was the life work of Hitchcock: the formalist cinematic thriller. Just as Carter takes up Nix's work; De Palma resumes his Hitchcockian phase. But, just as Carter transforms, De Palma transforms too. He takes this Hitchcockian thriller to an apex never before imagined, and he does so by giving the film not just one perspective, but many.

Chaotic Terrain: Subjective Reality and Narrative Möbius strip

What ultimately makes Raising Cain something more than a clever pastiche of Peeping Tom or Psycho is De Palma's purposeful splintering of the narrative in terms of our identification point.

In Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock moved our central identification from Marion to Norman (in time for a surprise, climactic reveal). Raising Cain multiplies this feat by transferring our fulcrum of identification from Carter to Jenny to Jack, to Waldheim, and on and on, ad infinitum. We therefore get dreams within dreams; delusions and hallucinations (featuring the invisible Cain) and even transferences of identities (from Carter to Josh to Margo).

In some cases, we see the same events repeated from a variety of perspectives, notably Josh's observance of Cain committing the murder of an 18 year old babysitter (Gabrielle Charteris). Time seems to over write itself in one scene involving the final disposition of two gift clocks. We double back, then burst forward.

When all this back-and-forth must at last be explained to the just-barely-keeping up audience, De Palma proceeds in snake-like, coiled fashion. He brilliantly stages an elaborate, lengthy tracking shot (approximately five minutes in duration) that follows two police detectives and Dr. Waldheim from the top floor of a police station down two stair-cases, through an elevator, down into the morgue,...where the shot ends on a close-up of a corpse's horrified expression of horror.

All throughout this masterful, unbroken shot, Waldheim explains the history of the Nix family and the theories underlying multiple personality disorders. She basically describes the events of the movie (Cain vs. Carter) in a fashion that makes sense out of perspective we've witnessed thus far. It's a journey from the top of Carter's mind, literally, to the bottom...to Cain's mind, where we spy his murderous handiwork (the corpse).

De Palma understands that form must echo content, and so the form of his film -- multiple perspectives coming together -- reflects the flotsam and jetsam Carter's splintered mind. The virtuoso unbroken shot is Waldheim's tour of that mind, a narrative maze of twists and turns, of science and ultimately death. But importantly, this tour is an unbroken one (like Waldheim's dissertation), making linear sense of the tale for the viewer.

Brian De Palma's Raising Cain is an intricate puzzle, a heady brew of multiple personalities and multiple perspectives vetting a story of American masculinity in crisis; of a director's film career in crisis, even. Fortunately, De Palma provides viewers all the clues necessary to pick the film's lock. The keys to the mystery involve cinematic antecedents from Powell and Hitchcock, the language of film grammar and even the specifics of the director's own canon. And that's why Raising Cain is no mere retread, but De Palma's valedictory psychological thriller. It's his zenith in this genre form. Or as Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times: "In his early days, Mr. De Palma sometimes labored to make his neo-Hitchcockian thrillers appear reasonable. This time that kind of strain is gone."

Indeed, in Raising Cain, the son's audacity outstrips the father's. Like Margo rising triumphantly above Jenny, De Palma rises above his inspirations and homages and attains his zenith here. Sometimes failure frees the soul to take chances without the burden of expectations. And that's what happens here. Raising Cain is no simple De Palma house of mirrors, but a go-for-broke thriller that challenges you to determine what is real, what is imagined, and who -- in fact -- is doing the imagining.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Apocalypse on My Street

So...last night we had a freak hail storm and lightning strike on my street, one house down.

My wife and I were putting our son to sleep, when lightning blasted a tree next door and shattered it into a million pieces. The sound of the explosion was deafening, and a series of blue sparks lit up the whole house before we were plunged into total darkness. I ran outside and saw that the downed tree also brought down electric lines all across the streets. One electric pole (pictured) was swaying in the breeze, sparking.

And wouldn't you know it, we didn't get power back till a few hours ago. And when we did, my desktop computer, three television sets, two DVD players, one laserdisc player, our microwave oven and Joel's air machine were all toast. Completely wasted. Dead in the water. Ergh!

I'll be back to blogging as soon as possible, but I think I'm going to be spending some one-on-one time with my homeowners' insurance company tomorrow morning!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

TV REVIEW: Defying Gravity: "Pilot"/"Natural Selection"

Award-winning writer and producer James Parriott -- the talent behind the cult favorite Dark Skies (1996) and also Forever Knight (1989-1996) -- has landed back in the genre with his so-called "Grey's Anatomy in Space" prime-time venture, Defying Gravity.

The series premiered on ABC last Sunday night with a pilot and the first one hour follow-up, titled "Natural Selection."

Like Virtuality before it, Defying Gravity concerns a lengthy space mission. Here, the spaceship Antares embarks on a six year voyage to explore seven planets in our solar system, starting with Venus (a 43 day voyage...).

The ship's diverse crew-members include flight engineer Maddux Donner (Ron Livingston), ship commander Ted Shaw (Malik Yoba), biologist Jen Crane (Christina Cox), geologist Zoe Barnes (Laura Harris), pilot Nadia Schilling (Florentine Lahm), physicist Steve Wassenfelder (Dylan Taylor), and journalist Paula Morales (Paula Garces). The Grey's Anatomy comparison is operable because this series is a "workplace" drama featuring lots of sex and romance. Only the workplace in question is...the final frontier.

Based on the first two episodes, Defying Gravity is lively and bright, but also extremely schmaltzy. The writers opt for big, sentimental, even maudlin gestures in the melodramatic story lines; and position their astronaut leading characters as impulsive, romance-obsessed, top gun sorts. As a result, many individual story moments may leave the "reality based" sci-fi audience gasping in shock.

For instance, a husband-and-wife astronaut team engages in weightless sexual intercourse on the flight deck of Antares -- on duty! -- even though they both realize all the techs in Mission Control down on Earth can see them getting it on. The commander in that nerve center below exercises discretion and turns off the screen, but how did these randy astronauts know he would do so? Furthermore, isn't sex on the job (in the control room...) somewhat...unprofessional? Especially for a guy who was the ship's commander?

At another point in the pilot episode, a depressed and sidelined astronaut named Sharma steps out into space on a suicidal EVA. Down on Earth, our hero, Maddox, virtually leaps into a convenient space pod, blasts off, and goes into space to rescue him. Yet space travel -- as the episode suggests at least twice -- is quite difficult. There are meticulous schedules to consider, windows of opportunity to target, and space adventuring is extremely expensive to boot. Yet Maddox just impulsively mounts a rescue, apparently without mission control's approval, and successfully maneuvers his small spacecraft around the large Antares. In doing so, isn't he endangering the 10 trillion dollar mission?

This kind of grand, emotional, melodramatic touch only makes the astronauts seem....emotionally unstable. Think about it: In one hour-long show, a brilliant engineer attempts suicide, the ship's biologist and commander hump like bunnies on the flight deck, and Maddox, the flight engineer, impulsively punches out two people and goes against orders to stage a difficult rescue. I'm fine with sex in space (who wouldn't be?). I just worry this show should be titled Defying Believability. The teleplay constantly reminds us that only one out of a thousand candidates is selected for the rigorous astronaut training program. Based on the impulsive, emotional behavior of those who "passed," I'm afraid to see what the other 999 candidates were like...

Actually, I get it. I do. Way back in 1975, another near-future space series, Space: 1999, adopted a minimalist, intellectual approach and was roundly criticized because, essentially, all the astronaut main characters were...stoic and thoughtful. "They act too much like scientists and administrators," critics complained. "The main characters behave more like business partners than romantic partners!" reviewers admonished. Ergh!

Defying Gravity looks like it wants to avoid that pitfall (if it is a legitimate pitfall...) at all costs, turning the series' astronauts into horny, quipping, broody, colorful, hormone cases. My advice: tone it down. Just a bit. Keep the sex restricted to off-duty astronauts. And keep it in crew quarters...not on the bridge.

Because, honestly, the science fiction touches in Defying Gravity aren't terrible. In fact, they're moderately intriguing. For instance, there's a strange force called "Beta" at work pulling the strings behind the Antares mission. This mysterious Beta -- an alien intelligence or perhaps a computer -- apparently chose the crew members, overriding NASA's choices in certain circumstances. Why? What are Beta's motives? In the last moments of "Natural Selection," the ship's captain boards the Antares pod that houses "Beta" (or perhaps just a link to Beta...) and seems to go mad...experiencing visions of a tragic mission to Mars.

This is a sturdy enough mystery on which to build the summer series; especially as Defying Gravity has promised that all will be revealed upon Antares' arrival at Venus. Another Space:1999 coincidence: the opening episode of that series ("Breakaway") involved a strange mystery involving not called Beta, but rather Meta. Hmmm...

Anyway, I was also tantalized here by the brief, cryptic references to life in the 2050s, the era of Defying Gravity. Apparently, Roe v Wade has been reversed, abortion is illegal, and now even over-the-counter pregnancy tests are against the law. The show doesn't go overboard with this political background, merely dropping a few hints that the United States -- and indeed the world -- are in for some big changes in the next few decades.

I have decided to put Defying Gravity to the same test I put all other fledgling sci-fi series. I'm going to watch five episodes and see if I'm hooked enough to stick around. This approach worked in the past for The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Dollhouse. But I dropped Fringe and Supernatural.

I hate to sound like a prude, but I certainly hope Defying Gravity goes more into sci-fi and less into lusty space sex. I know the producers want to draw in big audiences, but the program doesn't seem calibrated quite right yet. Grey's Anatomy is a bad role model, I believe. It's a big, stupid, overwrought, inconsequential series -- the Ally McBeal of the 2000s. Maybe Defying Gravity could aim higher, aim for the stars...

How about defying convention?

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.